With a blend of guile, physicality and natural skill, Garett Hickling was, in his prime, considered the top wheelchair rugby player in the world.
Next spring, the Kelowna man’s exploits on the court will be formally acknowledged and celebrated with his induction into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Hickling, a winner of eight international medals during his career with Team Canada, is humbled by the recognition.
“I never thought about it or dreamed of this, I was just doing what I loved to do,” said Hickling. “I was shocked and surprised, but very happy to receive this honour.”
Hickling, who now resides in Dorchester, Ont., near London, was rendered a functioning quadriplegic at just 16 after falling off a cliff in Kelowna.
Active in athletics all his life, Hickling soon developed a passion for wheelchair sports, eventually choosing rugby over basketball in 1992.
It was clearly natural fit for Hickling who went on to earn MVP honours in each of the first three Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in 1995, 1998 and 2002. He also helped Canada to the gold medal at worlds in 2002.
A member of the Canadian national team for 17 years, he competed in five Paralympic Games, including 2012 in London where the Canadians won silver.
Kathy Newman, the former executive director off the B.C. Wheelchair Sports Association, said few athletes in the sport have been able to match Hickling’s combination of talent and passion for the game.
“Garett was an amazing player, he had eyes in the back of his head,” said Kathy Newman, the former executive director off the B.C. Wheelchair Sports Association. “He always knows where to go and to be on the floor, he’s super fast and is always ready to play.
“He was so well-respected around the world with the way he played the game.”
Today, at 44, Hickling may not be the dominant force he once was on the court, but still plays the game with skill and fervour, helping Ontario to four straight national titles.
Hickling has also been a key figure in the steady growth of wheelchair rugby in Southern Ontario over the last four years, and was recently hired as the province’s talent and development coach.
Hickling said it’s a chance to give back to a sport that’s provided him with more than 20 years of joy and fulfillment.
“The game has given me so much over the years, I never imagined it would take me where it did,” said Hickling. “I want to give back, to try and help players get to that next level, maybe get them to the Paralympics. It’s something I was able to experience I want others to be able to do the same.”
As much as he will be remembered for his accomplishments on the court, Kathy Newman points to Hickling’s selfless work away from the hardwood as perhaps his most important contributions to the sport.
“If I asked for help, whether we went into schools or into rehab centres, he never said no,” said Nemwan. “He did whatever he could to further the sport and to promote physical activity.
“For him, playing really created his caring character and he’s taken the opportunity to give back,” Newman added. “He has shown if you have spinal injury, there are opportunities to be involved and live a full and enjoyable life. He will be a role model for wheelchair sports for years to come.”
As for his career highlights, Hickling said serving as Canada’s flag bearer for the 2012 Paralympic Games rates near the top of the list, while MVP awards at three world championships and a gold medal at worlds aren’t far behind.
Still, awards and medals aside, Hickling is simply thankful for the life experiences wheelchair rugby have afforded him.
“I’ve travelled a lot, meeting players and teams from all over the world,” said Hickling. “Those are things I’ll never forget. I’d have never done this all without (wheelchair rugby).”
Among those joining Hickling in the athlete category in the B.C. hall will be former NHLer Paul Kariya and Olympic speed skating medialist Denny Morrison.
The 2015 inductees will be formally enshrined into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame at the 47th Annual Banquet of Champions May 28 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.