When Nik Goncin takes to the court for his first Paralympics this September, he won’t only take pride in playing for his country, but also for two of the people cheering him on from the stands: mom and dad.
The wheelchair basketball standout’s parents will be sharing every moment with him down in Rio, making the experience extra special.
Zoran and Rada Goncin have played a pivotal role in getting their son to where he is today. The Goncins were originally from Sarajevo and immigrated to Regina as refugees of war when the budding Paralympian was three-years-old and he uses the sacrifices they’ve made as motivation to achieve his goals.
“I’ve said many times that my dad’s my role model,” Goncin said. “(My dad) told me this one time when he was going on a job interview and he went to Giant Tiger and he bought a tie – a one-dollar tie – and after the interview he went and returned it.
“Sometimes you throw away money on all sorts of silly things, but he spent a dollar on a tie and he still gave it back after the interview and to think that’s where he started.
“Now he’s doing great for himself, travelling to Toronto and all kinds of places.”
The University of Illinois alum has made sure not to take anything for granted and has worked hard to play the game that has given him a new lease on his athletic career. The 24-year-old played many sports growing up, including able-bodied basketball, but after breaking his leg in a high school game, he was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma.
“As soon as you could see the x-ray it just looked like this massive cloud around my fibula,” he said. “It was pretty clear that (it was cancer) and exactly how it would be illustrated in the book.”
Goncin travelled to Edmonton for 15 months of chemotherapy, but needed his left leg, just below the knee, amputated. Yet, because of his parents, he never really worried about the situation.
His dad handled all of what Goncin called, the technical aspects: he got him to and from the hospital, to various appointments, and was involved with the various doctors that performed the procedures and the surgery to amputate his leg.
Meanwhile Goncin’s mother was the emotional leader.
“She held strong for me, but she’s very emotional and gets upset about things and I understand that, but it was definitely harder for her than it was for me,” he said.
Mother stayed with him for the first five months he was hospitalized and she would bring him whatever he wanted. Although he didn’t eat much, her pancakes, mashed potatoes and gravy and her trips to McDonald’s for french fries kept him going.
Eight months after completing his chemotherapy treatments Goncin found wheelchair basketball thanks to Mike Brady, coach of the Regina Paratroopers wheelchair basketball team.
Brady, a wheelchair basketball player himself, started an initiative in 1988 and took wheelchairs around to local schools and introduced kids to the game in an attempt to bring awareness to the opportunities in sport available to those who were physically challenged.
Goncin happened to be taking part in one of Brady’s demonstrations one day. Although reluctant at first, thanks to some prodding from his brother he went out and played.
“That was it,” Brady said. “(Nik) never missed (a shot) and he didn’t just want to be good, he wanted to be the best.”
And it shows. Goncin led Canada at the 2013 World Juniors and was named tournament MVP, and Brady believes he may have a shot at becoming the best Canadian wheelchair basketball player ever.
“When Nik first started, I knew he was a special kid and a special player,” Brady said. “He always wanted to outdo guys, but he always pushed them to get better.”
Goncin even outdid three-time gold medalist Patrick Anderson, who many consider to currently be the greatest ever.
“At national camps they time every drill that you do and add it up at the end and read off who was the fastest person,” Brady said. “Over the whole week Nik beat (Anderson) by four seconds and it was a huge thing.”
But that’s secondary for Goncin – it all comes down to winning. With his parents looking on in Rio de Janeiro, he hopes what they’ll see is their son with gold around his neck.