Mike Whitehead, competing for gold in the 2015 World Championships in Mississauga, hopes to add similar hardware to his resume at the Rio 2016 Games. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

‘Fun-loving’ tough guy is the leader of the pack

Wheelchair rugby’s Mike Whitehead, in his fourth Paralympics, is the player others look up to

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Mike Whitehead has struggled through mental illness and alcohol abuse, but 11 of the toughest people in Canada continue to look up to him.

For the wheelchair rugby player, that makes his experience at the Paralympics much sweeter.

“We’ve been a group of brothers and sisters for a long, long time,” Whitehead said, after the team’s final workout before the competition begins. “It’s a real treat to have each other.”

Whitehead said that a “constant stream of poor choices for a long period of time” led him to rock bottom. After testing positive for cocaine during the 2013 national championships, he was suspended for 12 months.

His immediate decision was to get sober and a lot of good has come out of it.

“(There) a lot of surprises that I didn’t know would come my way as far as positive things in my life,” the Essex, Ont. native said. “As far as my future in the sport and being a husband and a parent, a lot of great things (have happened).”

The 40-year-old has played wheelchair rugby since 2000 and made his debut on the national team in 2001.

Whitehead had wheelchair rugby legend Garett Hickling by his side throughout the ups and downs. Hickling’s transition from player to club-level coach meant that he would not be present in Rio.

“He definitely is a ‘papa figure’ for me and was for a lot of years,” Whitehead said. “A lot of my success I attribute to him to his mentoring.

“He’s missed because he’s a cornerstone to wheelchair rugby in Canada.”

Over the years, Whitehead has transitioned from idolizing his teammates to being the one admired.

“Mike’s great at sharing from his past experiences and helping with anything I need,” said teammate Cody Caldwell who is playing in his first Paralympics. “He’s an extra tool of knowledge for me.”

For Whitehead, Rio is his fourth Paralympic Games, but he said it feels like the first in Athens.

“I was very nervous in my rookie Paralympics, very excited, very young and very immature,” Whitehead said. “So basically, I’m the same – I’m nervous, I’m excited, and I’m still immature. It’s just having fun.”

Zak Madell, at his second Paralympics, shares pre-tournament jitters with his veteran teammate.

“I think it would be a little worrying if none of us were nervous,” the 22-year-old said. “It means we’re passionate about what we do, we care about how we’re going to perform in these Games.”

The dynamic of the team is light-hearted and it showed during a workout at Carioca Arena 1 on Tuesday.

The players were focused and determined but still able to toss a jab at each while they crashed and banged on the court.

“We know how to have a good time because we are a bunch of kids who are chasing a ball,” Whitehead said.

Wheelchair rugby has grown in audience reception and media coverage.

“We’re getting the recognition we deserve as athletes,” Whitehead said.

Team Canada takes on Brazil in its opening match Wednesday at 6.15 p.m. ET.

Twitter: @HannahDCarver