Canada defeated rival United States 50-49 in today’s semi-final wheelchair rugby match at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. After taking an early lead, Canada was up by six points at the half. With only 1:46 remaining in the match, the U.S. tied it up for the first time, drawing gasps from a packed arena.
In an unimaginable final minute, U.S. player Chuck Aoki scored to tie it at 49 per side and allowed Canada the opportunity to make a final substitution replacing rookie Zak Madell with veteran Garett Hickling. With the clock winding down, Hickling and Mike Whitehead stole the ball forcing the U.S. to draw two defensive fouls in a matter of seconds in an attempt to regain possession. With less than a second left, Hickling crossed the goal line to give Canada the win.
“The key was just our four guys coming out very strong, ready to play, on fire,” said Hicking. “We had a plan, we had a strategy. I think the USA was shell shocked by us. We stuck to our plan and guys continued to work and do what was needed.”
“We started off really confident,” said key player Trevor Hirschfield. “We knew we had to put it on their throats early and push hard. What we did in that first quarter was amazing. We knew they weren’t going to give up. They’re the States. They kept fighting and fighting. But in the end, we showed up. We pulled that one out.”
Head coach Kevin Orr was less demure in his praise for his players.
“When you get a guy like Garett Hickling, he’s going to battle for you. That’s the kind of leadership you need on a team. Garett’s a warrior. That’s what sport’s all about. It’s a war. You’ve got to have warriors to go out there and our guys went out and that.”
On low-pointer Hirschfield, coach Orr was particularly pleased. “I think Trevor Hirschfield was the reason why we won this,” he said. “He’s the heart and soul. He was determined to win.”
Zak Madell led in scoring for Team Canada with 14 points, followed by Trevor Hirschfield with 11 plus a team point, Mike Whitehead with 11, Garett Hickling with seven and David Willsie, Ian Chan and Fabian Lavoie with two points each.
This loss will mark only the second time the U.S. has missed out on a gold medal in international competition in the history of the sport. They were defeated by Canada in the 2002 World Championship final and again defeated by Canada in the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, as captured in the Academy Award nominated documentary, Murderball.
Canada will be making its third Paralympic gold medal match appearance, having last sought the venerable prize in 2004 against New Zealand where they obtained silver. Prior to Athens, the last time Canada competed in the gold medal final was the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, when wheelchair rugby was still a demonstration sport.
Canada will face Australia Sunday at 14:15 London time in the gold medal game. This will be the second time Canada faces Australia in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Canada lost to them in their first match in London, 52-64.
Looking at their chances tomorrow, Team Canada is using the experience gained from their earlier round robin match against Australia.
“We’ve got to come out the same way we came out today. We’ve got to keep firing. Keep pushing,” said Hirschfield. “They’ve got one guy, so we’ve got to get him tired and make him work for every goal end to end.”
“Our starting lineup’s changed. Our young guys have improved drastically and we’re going to come out ready to send a statement,” added Hickling.