Mélaine Labelle aims to inspire young disabled athletes as Montreal sporting event goes virtual

Training at home under self-isolation is just the latest major life adjustment for Mélaine Labelle.

“The accident has taught me a lot,” said Labelle, 34, the only female member of Canada’s wheelchair rugby team.

“Lying there in the hospital and being in rehab for so long, you make a decision every morning to just get up and go. Because it’s never going to be a 100-per-cent day.”

Labelle has always been active, with a passion for soccer, ultimate Frisbee and competitive swing dancing.

Her world changed in 2016, when she had an accident on the dance floor that left her paralyzed.

“Of course, I could look into the direction of just sinking into the emotions. Or I could look into the direction of keeping going and pushing forward — and I think that direction has been working for me.”

Before the world of sports was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic in early March, she and her teammates earned their spot in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo at a qualifying tournament in Richmond, B.C.

Mélanie Labelle competed in the Dig Tha’ Feet swing-dancing competition in 2016. She was paralyzed in an accident on the dance floor in March 2016. (Submitted by Dig Tha’ Feet)

A love affair with rugby begins in rehab

After her accident, rugby became Labelle’s outlet to help her maintain the active lifestyle she was used to.

“It found me,” she joked.

It all started when the Montreal Machine rugby club demonstrated the sport at her rehab centre.

“I fell in love right away,” she said.

“I got in the chair, and the first thing I did was go and hit someone and try to sprint with my tiny chicken arms. It was pretty tough, but it was fun. I mean, I kept giggling the whole time.”

She hit the gym to rid herself of those “chicken arms,” and she was soon playing wheelchair rugby competitively.

One of the first big events she competed in was the Défi Sportif Altergo in 2018. The annual event in Montreal hosts thousands of disabled athletes of all skill levels.

Mélanie Labelle discovered wheelchair rugby while she was in rehab, recovering from her spinal injury. (Submitted by Mélanie Labelle)

She said she was struck by how great it was to be able to connect and share experiences with so many people who are living in a similar situation to hers.

The wheelchair rugby community at the event and around the country helped inspire her to keep pushing, she said, and soon she was competing for Canada at major international events.

Last summer in Lima, Peru, Labelle and her teammates won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games.

Défi Sportif Altergo moves online for 37th edition

Organizers asked Labelle to be one of their ambassadors for the 2020 edition of their event, and she was excited to take part.

The outbreak of COVID-19 threw a wrench into the plan, but Labelle’s support never wavered, and she was confident organizers would find a way to continue spreading the message of hope and determination through sport.

“I’m really happy that they found a way to make it live this year, even though we can’t be together in the same room,” Labelle said.

Mélanie Labelle, the only woman on Canada’s wheelchair rugby team, and her teammates won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru in 2019. (Submitted by Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Organizers have adjusted to the pandemic. Instead of welcoming thousands of athletes to the Claude Robillard sports complex in person, they’re hosting a TikTok video competition and video-conferencing panels that will be made up of athletes like Labelle.

Labelle said she’s anxious to use the opportunity to speak to anyone who might be in need of an inspirational boost or someone who might be struggling with their situation — as she does from time to time.

“Have fun and push forward, and one day you’ll just look back and see how far you’ve come,” she said. “Hopefully sports gives that to you.”

Labelle doesn’t know when she is going to be able to see her teammates on the national team again.

But with the Paralympics pushed back to 2021, she’s taking the extra time to prepare — working out in her home gym so she can lock down her spot on the roster.

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