Canada’s wheelchair rugby team found out quickly in 2012 that they had a star on their hands.
That star’s name was Zak Madell, who at the time was 18 years old and had only played a year and a half of competitive wheelchair rugby.
Going into the London Games, the Okotoks, Alta. native was not expected to be the focal point of the silver-medal team, as he is now. However, he quickly garnered playing time, an experience he looks back on as a stepping stone to his current role with the team.
“The 2012 games are always going to have a special place in my heart, being my first games and going in so new to the game and not knowing what’s going on, trying to take it all in,” Madell said in a Zoom interview Thursday after arriving home from the Tokyo Paralympics. “I was only in rugby for a year and a half at that point.
“I go back and watch video now, and it’s kind of the same thing as now. I’m out there just a kid with a smile on his face goofing around, not really knowing what’s going on,” he said. “I think a lot of that helped take away from some of the pressure of being on a silver-medal team. I was just out there playing rugby doing all that I knew how to do at that time.”
Madell’s performance was the exact boost from an unlikely source that the 2012 Canadian wheelchair rugby team needed to propel it to a massive semi-final win against its rival, the No. 1-ranked Americans.
Now 27, Madell quickly established himself as one of the best players in the world. The Canuck was MVP of the 2014 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Odense, Denmark, the 2014 Canada Cup International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament and the 2015 World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge.
Fast-forward to 2021. Madell was a leader for the Canadian wheelchair rugby team in this year’s games, averaging 26.0 tries and serving as a big energy boost to the team when they needed him, carrying the workload and ball almost exclusively alongside a veteran group of players.
The forward, also known as ‘The Kid’, was the second-youngest player on the team coming into the tournament, a scenario he’s been used to ever since he actually was a kid. He mentioned always being the youngest among family and friends as something that drew him towards the game of rugby itself.
Madell grew up playing lacrosse, an extremely physical game. Early on, he tried his luck at sledge hockey but found it difficult to hold the stick. Later, he decided to get into the game of wheelchair basketball, which was a little more up his alley, but still found himself yearning for the competitive contact that drew him towards lacrosse.
He credits roughhousing on his trampoline and backyard football as a significant catalyst to his love for the game.
“The biggest draw for me was always the contact. I grew up a lacrosse player and had an older brother, plus all my friends were older than me, so I was always the young kid in the group getting tossed around on the trampoline or playing football in the backyard,” Madell said.
“So it was nothing I wasn’t accustomed to from a young age and something that has always been appealing to me. So I think finding a healthy outlet for some of that aggression was really what drew me in.”
Keeping a positive mindset
It seemed like every time the cameras panned over to Madell in Tokyo he was rallying his squad, whether it be with an ear-to-ear smile or dancing between breaks.
It can be tough for a team with really high expectations to always play with that joy for the game when there is such immense pressure to perform on a stage as big as the Paralympics.
The love of the game is something Madell felt he might have lost in the past, being so wrapped up in performing. He decided entering these games that fun was going to be a top priority.
“I think this time around, I kind of mentally prepared. In the past, there was so much pressure on myself and our program to perform well. Obviously, those were still there, and we had those expectations, but I think I used to let it weigh on me too heavily to the point where it took a lot out of the whole experience for me,” Madell said when talking about his positive attitude on the court.
“And this games, I just wanted to show up and take it all in as much as possible. Win, lose or draw, whatever happened. I was just trying to enjoy it.”
Having a positive mindset is something Madell doesn’t take for granted, as he realizes an athlete’s time in this game doesn’t last forever. Before he knows it, he could be sitting at a day job that’s far less enjoyable than clashing wheelchairs with athletes from around the world.
He always has that in the back of his mind to remind him to be himself and have fun.
“I think I always have (showed his fun, goofy side). I mean, at the end of the day it’s a game that we get to play, a game we have the privilege to call our day jobs really. I mean if I wanted to go sit at a desk, I could. It just doesn’t seem as appealing,” Madell said.
“I know that’s something that’s in the stars moving forward and something I need to think about and plan. That’s why I took some time off after Rio to go to school. But at the end of the day, we are playing a game and we may as well enjoy ourselves while we are out there.”
Madell will only be 30 when the Paralympics come around to France in 2024, a game he hopes to participate in for Canada.
The three-time Paralympian took a break between Rio and Tokyo to focus on his university studies and have a little change of pace. He wanted to find some balance in his life and prepare for a career outside of wheelchair rugby.
Madell reflects on what his future endeavours might encompass and what he will remember most about these Tokyo paralympic games below.