UPDATE: Darda Sales made the Paralympic team and will compete in Rio this September.
One of the newer members of Canada’s women’s national wheelchair basketball team is fighting to earn a spot on the roster, even though she is a world-record holding, gold medal winning, Paralympic champion.
Darda Sales overcame a farm accident that took her leg at the age of two and then at 18 she swam her way to gold at the 2000 Paralympics, only to be forced to deal with another injury that prematurely ended her swimming career.
Sales was 28 and already a multi-medal winning Paralympian when she had to retire from the pool.
“I developed compartment syndrome in my left forearm,” she said, courtside at the Mattamy Athletic Centre during the 2016 Toronto Challenge. “We had hoped that it would subside and I would get better and that I could compete at the World Championships in August of 2010.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t get better and I couldn’t train at the level that I needed to be competitive at the international level. I had to make the decision to not swim anymore.”
As a Paralympian, Sales represented Canada at the Paralympics three times before she was injured.
At the Sydney Games in 2000, she set a world record that lasted for six years in the 4 x 100-metre medley relay and was awarded gold atop the podium with her teammates. Sales also competed in 2004 at Athens, where she brought home a silver medal in the same event, and 2008 in Beijing.
Expectedly, she struggled to deal with her career-ending injury, her second life-changing event.
“I felt like it was something that was kind of thrust on me,” she said. “I was swimming very fast and I was swimming very well, so to have to have that stop was really tough, and I unceremoniously got dropped from the national team.
“It was kind of, ‘OK, good luck. You’re on your own.’ It was really tough, but one of the things that really helped me was playing a bunch of basketball.”
At the time, Sales was new to wheelchair basketball and only played recreationally with friends before she was forced out of the water.
She didn’t make the senior women’s national team until 2014. Since then, she played for Canada at the Toronto Parapan Am Games in 2015, and is hoping to fill one of the final spots on the team for the Rio 2016 Paralympics.
Ultimately, it was the competition of sport that she missed so much from her swimming days, and she was able to feed that competitive desire through basketball.
“I started to see that maybe I had an opportunity to have a competitive outlet,” said Sales. “It kind of got me over the swimming thing.”
She understood, however, that no amount of basketball could replace her world record setting past.
“I’m not 100 per cent over it,” she said. “I was so close to some greatness, but it [wheelchair basketball] definitely helped.”
Benjamin Durham, a student in Fanshawe College’s interactive design and production program, made a documentary about Sales four years ago and was not surprised that she continued to compete past her swimming days.
“There’s a talent, and she thrives on destroying that talent,” he said. “She really likes that challenge and I think that’s what keeps her going. She is very competitive. Very. She’s really nice about it, but she will tear you apart if you are in her way.”
Durham believes that her relentless drive is just a by-product of who she is.
“She has this aura around her that she’s unstoppable,” he said. “She’s one of those people, you can’t hold her back and she’ll always be doing this, until she can’t.”
For now, Sales will continue to push for a spot on the team going to Rio, but she is in a very unique position.
She is both a rookie to the wheelchair basketball Paralympic team and a veteran with a wealth of Paralympic experience. If Sales makes the team, it will be her fourth Games over the span of 16 years, and she will be able to contribute both off and on the court.
“I think I bring experience,” she said. “I competed at the international level for a number of years. It was a different sport, but the pressures are the same: the need to train hard and to constantly push yourself to get better. All those things translate over.”
With experience comes maturity, which is something she believes her teammates recognize and can learn from her.
“I’ve been there before,” said Sales. “I know how to expect the pressures, and the excitement, and the whirlwind of everything that goes around with the Paralympics, and I kind of have a calm to it. I think that’s appreciated on the team.”
The reality of representing her country at an elite level for a second time is within her grasp, and the idea of playing for Canada again is both exciting and humbling for her.
“That would be pretty amazing,” said Sales. “That would be the ultimate. There is no higher honour for an athlete to represent their country on the national stage, so if I get the opportunity to do that in a second sport, like, it’s kind of mind blowing, but at the same time I’m deeply honoured.”
The final team will be announced by the end of April, and if she makes the team, not even a decade’s worth of experience and maturity will keep her calm at opening ceremonies as she represents Canada for the fourth time at the Paralympic games.
“I think I’m going to get the same chills and the same excitement I had 16 years ago.”