Going for gold

Paralympic rookie goes for the win in wheelchair basketball

It can be hard to believe the positive sentiments behind words when it’s your hurt child that’s saying them, Carol Diefenbacher says.

In 2000, her son Brandon Wagner was involved in a car accident. He was the only one who survived but the crash left him paralyzed.

“Brandon said after his accident, ‘You know mom, you’ve always taught us that everything in life happens for a reason,’” Diefenbacher recalled. “I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach.”

Twelve years later, those words ring true. Wagner, now 28 years old, is set to represent Canada for the first time in wheelchair basketball on the Paralympic stage this summer in London.

“Nothing else really matters right now,” said Wagner, who wears 13 on the national team. “I quit my job … to train for London. All the hard work is really starting now.”

A fact that his personal coach, Stephen Bialowas, can endorse.

The hours of practice and preparation are grueling. He needs to be motivated and determined to persevere to stay at the top of his game, he said.

Over the next four months, Wagner, who trains at Variety Village Sports Training and Fitness Centre in Scarborough, said he will double his efforts to be in competitive shape. He’s in the gym five to six times a week, on and off the court.

He added that he was paying particular attention to speed, quickness, and agility.

“Brandon possesses that drive and determination to hit the gym every day,” Bialowas said. “By all accounts he has pushed his game to higher levels.”

Wagner missed out on a national team spot four years ago.

“In 2008, I came up short,” he said. “So it was exciting, really emotional to make the [2012] team.”

After the crash that left him paralyzed, Wagner focused his energies on basketball with the encouragement of a coach in his hometown of Burlington, Ont. His commitment to the sport allowed him to play and study at the University of Illinois, where he was named student athlete of the year in 2009.

“He’s an absolute driven soul,” Diefenbacher said, “incredibly committed to training.” Canada is the reigning Paralympic silver medallist in men’s wheelchair basketball. In 2000 and 2004, Canada won gold.

This year, the field is full of strong competition and Canada has “as good a chance as any to win,” Wagner said. But, he added, his intention is to help bring gold home.

“Wheelchair basketball opened a lot of doors for me,” Wagner said. “If I was able-bodied, I would never have gotten this far.”