Miranda Biletski is a Canadian Wheelchair Rugby athlete and the only women on the Canadian team at the 2016 Paralympic Games. The competition runs from September 14-18 in Rio de Janiero.
This interview was recorded in July 2016 for the WiSP World Canada Podcast. Interview by Chris Stafford. Full transcript below:
CS: This is an obviously exciting time for you, just a few weeks to go. You’re going to be making history going to Rio as part of the Canada wheelchair rugby team – the only woman.
MB: Yeah. We’ve had a woman on our team in the past go to the Paralympics; Erica back in 2008, but if we win gold, that will be the first time there has been a woman that has won a gold medal in wheelchair rugby. So there is a little bit of added pressure there, but not too much.
CS: You’re not taking too much pressure on board, I can tell. You are pretty laid back about this, but let’s talk about how you got into the sport, Miranda. What was it that appealed to you about the game that you thought you could crack this and get to Olympic level?
MB: The documentary Murderball came out about three months after my injury. I was actually still in a rehab centre at the time, and I saw it and coming from a team sport environment as an able-bodied athlete, and I mean growing up was all boys… I have an older brother, and all my cousins are all boys, so I mean, it was just a natural transition. Especially as far as sports that are more quadriplegic friendly… I was like “ahh, do I want to do track?” but the team sport environment of rugby really appealed to me a lot more.
CS: What is it then that appealed to you, because there are so many choices now for team sports, individual sports for para-athletes… what was it specifically about that rugby ball? Especially given that there are not that many women playing.
MB: I mean it’s interesting, and people have said it that have seen sports, and something about the wheelchair rugby community, and even outside the sport, the relationship that we all have with each other and the camaraderie and that aspect, I don’t think there is any other sport in the world that has that. I think the aggressive nature and the contact with the sport, coming from playing water polo just before my injury definitely appealed to me. As far as being a woman on the team, I mean it’s something that I don’t overly think about, it gets asked of me a lot when I do interviews, but for us it doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary, it was a pretty easy and natural fit.
CS: When you got the call up, what your reaction was; were you surprised to be part of the team, or were you kind of expecting it since you’ve obviously developed extensively in the sport and you’ve already been part of championship teams in the past.
MB: I think going into London, I feel like it was more of a disappointment, but not as much as an expectation making that team. And then post London Games I kind of more solidified myself with my role and making it clear that I’m on the team and that’s my position, but then also missing Para-Pan Ams and being out for an extended period with an injury just before selection. I want to say I still expected and hoped to be on the team, but I think there was a little more question mark given the time I had off with the injury and given the poor timing of it.
CS: So how long now have you been in training since that injury, Miranda?
MB: I mean I was always doing a little bit of training, but I wasn’t traveling and training with the team again until April so it was a bit of a vacation.
CS: Vacation, that’s a good way to look at it. Well tell us about your training schedule: how often you play together and train together as a team, and how often you play competitively at home? Do you have other teams to play with where you are, or is it mostly training?
MB: It’s funny, we have a bit of a hectic schedule, especially with the way our clubs and provincial teams schedule with the international schedule. They don’t really relate with each other so we are basically playing rugby all year round. As soon as our international season ends our club season usually begins. So as far as training wise, we are in the gym six days a week. We do any type of weight resistance training four times a week, and then we are on the court six times a week. There’s a lot of leagues in Canada which we have done well developing the last few years. Originally I’m from Saskatchewan, so there’s a Prairie League that travels around there. In Ontario, Quebec and BC there are numerous teams, so being out in BC there is a club amongst like all BC teams that we divvy up athletes. With our team given that three-quarters of our team is based out in BC we either travel to Vancouver and train and scrimmage with the rest of the guys out there or they come this way. Leading into Rio we are pretty much together every day until we leave, so yeah, it is a pretty busy schedule.
CS: It certainly is. In terms of the time it takes during the day, do you have time for anything else other than to train and prepare for Rio? And talk a little about the financial support you might get being part of that elite squad, Miranda.
MB: There is not a heck of a lot of time for other activities. Especially, I am taking a couple of university courses right now so I usually wake up, eat breakfast, go to the gym, come back and do homework, go to bed and that kind of summarises that day for me. Right now we have Sundays completely off as our day off, but even then after our whole six days of training you don’t really feel like going out and doing all that much, you kind of hang low. It definitely takes up a lot of time, but as far as Canada and financial support we have lucked out where the Canadian Government supports Paralympic athletes. We get the same level of carding and funding that our Olympic counterparts get, which I can’t say that a lot of other Paralympic teams and countries do get. There is a lot of individual sponsorship, whether we have guys who are sponsored by chair companies so they aren’t paying that cost… great programs and funds like “athletes-can” and the “CAN” fund, which we’ve had a couple athletes on our team receive that, and I know we have a couple athletes on our team part of the RBC Olympians and CiBC Next, so we really lucked out that way where the guys can get little bits of individual sponsorship to go along with our carding.
CS: Talk about the teams that are main contenders… the USA of course is your nearest and dearest rival, but New Zealand and Australia are also top nations in wheelchair rugby. Talk a little bit about the form you have as a team compared to those leading nations going into Rio, Miranda, and who do you think you will be battling it out with. The team has been on the medal podium a few times now; just missed out in Sydney, but pretty consistent since the sport was introduced to the games. So talk about your prospects realistically going into Rio.
MB: With Wheelchair Rugby before there always used to be the top one or two and then in later years the three favourites and then there was a bit of drop off. But now there is a lot of parody in the sport, you can’t go in taking any teams lightly now, whereas before you could look at a pool and pick out which games would be tough. Looking at our pool in Rio we have Australia, GB and Brazil in our pool. Australia and GB are going to be very tough games; we always have close games with GB. Australia has a history of beating us at major tournaments where they won the gold medal in London and the world championships in 2014… so that’s going to be a tough game for us as well. Brazil, I wasn’t there when they played them at Pan Am’s, but they developed and have come a long way in the last six or seven years. Then the other pool, as far as who we could play in crossovers, obviously we have a huge rivalry over the USA. No love lost there. Most Canadian and U.S. sports teams, and then even Japan most recently beat us at a tournament, which hasn’t happened before at a major international tournament, so they have stepped up their game and done homework. Sweden has a strong team, and then even France in the Paralympic qualifier that they had in April, they were leading the U.S. going into half time and playing really well. All seven teams, and then us as the eighth there are a lot of really strong teams. I think going in we still expect to win and I think anything other than a gold medal is going to be a bit of a disappointment… but we also are aware at how strong the other teams are.
CS: So what aspect of these Games are you most looking forward to? Each games and each championship event has its own culture and own preparation. You know, the form that you are on and the team that surrounds you… what makes this one special and what are you most looking forward to as a personal challenge?
MB: This is going to be my first multi-sport games, so for me that I am really excited about. To meet other athletes from different sports, maybe catch a couple of events before rugby starts, but as far as our team, what I am excited about is that this team has become a second family for all of us. We spend most of the holidays together. The few of us that train in Victoria, whether it is living together or we eat all of our meals together… and even on our day off we are usually together, so that aspect of it is going to make the Games really special.
CS: Okay, so let’s talk about the countdown now. [Here we are in July, you have a few weeks now still to go.] In terms of your preparation, what the team is expected to do as a team, competitively leading up to the games, when you will leave, when you will get your team kit… all of the details because it is all exciting, it is all part of the journey, isn’t it?
MB: Yeah. Very exciting. We will have two training camps out in Victoria and then a staging camp in Dorchester, ON, before flying down to Rio. Which is nice for me and the guys out here that mostly train in Victoria and Vancouver that we don’t have a lot of traveling to do this summer. But yeah, we are going to be together a lot. We have been going over a lot of video – we do a lot of video analysis of other teams as far as time together, it is a pretty hectic and full schedule. The clothes are really exciting- we have done all the measurements for that. I am not 100% sure when we are going to get all of that but I’m sure we will have some fantastic gear.
CS: Okay so when do you actually leave? When do you ship out as a team? How far ahead of the games is the competition itself?
MB: September 1st we will be leaving our staging camp in Dorchester. Then as far as our exact date going to Rio, I want to say that it is the 7th, but I could be wrong on that.
CS: How long will you be out there? Do you come back home right after your tournament?
MB: Yeah, rugby ends up being the last day before the closing ceremonies. And then I fly out on the 20th, which the games finish on the 18th, so I will be going home pretty quick after. So flying to Victoria and then driving to Saskatchewan. I feel like a bit of a bad friend because I have missed out on my friends and family the last year and a half – two years so it will be nice to take some time off and then go back to Saskatchewan.
CS: Whilst you are in Rio will you get a chance to watch any other sports or be a part of the closing ceremonies particularly since you are going to be there at the end of the games?
MB: The closing ceremony for sure. As far as taking in other sports, I think it sort of depends on how our schedule shakes out and how everyone is doing. There might be a brief window where we can check out one or two events. At the end of the day it is really cool to see other athletes, but we aren’t there to watch other athletes. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
CS: Well we always ask this of Olympians because if they weren’t competing in their own sport – pretty busy with that of course with their own schedule, and there is not always a chance to watch other sports… but if you did have a chance, which sport would you enjoy watching?
MB: Oh I mean, being a competitive swimmer before my injury I’d have to say swimming, but I think a lot of the track and field events I would be really intrigued to see, especially the single and double leg amp. runners. The wheelchair basketball team; they won world championships when it was in Toronto two years ago so they are favourites going in, so that’s a team I have to support. I have a couple of friends on the athletics side; Becky Richter back in Saskatchewan that does club throw, but then I have another good friend, Kylie Grimes, who used to play wheelchair rugby with GB, but has switched over to track and field so I am hoping for her to qualify so I can root her on a little bit.
CS: So any other sports that you hope to be playing, or is it just going to be rugby? Is it time to think about other sports?
MB: I think it’s safe to say it is going to be rugby for now… I can’t predict the future, but I am very happy with my sport.
CS: Well you are pretty young still too, Miranda. There is lots of time to develop other sports… I know how ambitious you Olympians get. You have a go at one thing and we see so many of those crossovers to other sports and becoming multi-Olympians on summer and winter games. You mentioned that you did swim, you playing polo before that diving accident; are you able to get in the water now, is that part of therapy or training, do you enjoy that aspect anymore?
MB: I don’t really do it as part of therapy or training. It is more for fun now. As far as there are a lot of people that assumed that I would be afraid of water given that I got injured in a pool. I went backpacking in Australia with one of my best friends a few years ago and went and dove in the Great Barrier Reef… so water is just more of a for fun thing for me now.
CS: It is a fun thing. Just remind us how old you were when you had the accident itself, Miranda.
MB: I was 16 when I had my diving accident… and I am 27 now.
CS: There is still loads of time then. I can imagine that you will be involved in lots of other sports and we will hear more from you. I imagine that you can be involved in wheelchair rugby for some time?
MB: Yeah, we have some guys in our sport that are in their 40s on our team. There are a lot of mid- to late 30s. I can’t for sure say whether or not I will be playing that long, there is definitely a bit of a longer shelf life in para-sport and wheelchair rugby than some of our able-bodied counterparts that’s for sure.
CS: So what are you looking forward to after the games? You said you are still studying so what are your dreams and aspirations? That side of rugby after the games.
MB: It is definitely going to be hunkering down with school because it sort of gets pushed to the back burner a bit, which drives me nuts because I still enjoy a really good mark. Sometimes when I don’t have the full time to dedicate to it, getting a 75% really bothers me. But I have to suck it up right now just given where we are in our schedules. Going home, getting to spend more time with my family, eating a little bit more junk food – a couple months to kind of behave more like my friends that aren’t professional/amateur athletes.
CS: There you go. You mentioned your family there, are any of them going to be able to travel to Rio to watch you?
MB: My mum is going to watch as well as my best friend who I grew up with and her mum, and then another friend from Australia is coming over to watch as well. And then I know, even with our team in general, a lot of the guy’s wives who I am friends with are coming out. Some of our friends from wheelchair rugby that aren’t a part of the Canadian program are coming to watch; as a Canadian team we have a pretty big contingency coming.
CS: Well that sounds like a lot of fun. Big cheerleading team right behind you. Maybe a chance to beat Australia – get back after they beat you in London. You’ve certainly got to keep these upstarts from creeping up behind you like Japan and Great Britain. There is a lot of work to do, but it is going to be very exciting.
MB: It is going to be a blast. Winning a gold medal would be the cherry on top of it, but it is a tough ask for sure, there are a lot of strong teams in Wheelchair Rugby right now.
CS: For sure. The very best of luck, Miranda. I hope it goes well for you and I am sure you will have many memories and stories to bring home with you and share for a long time.
MB: Thank you.