Belfast Telegraph

Bowled over by athleticism of boccia’s leading players

It’s a World Cup with a difference — as its competitors are wheelchair-bound. But like in any major tournament, the participants just want to win, as Anne Madden reports

The Sports Centre at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown was buzzing yesterday with athletes and coaches from 33 countries around the world warming up for the Boccia World Cup.

Like any major sports tournament, the competitors wore the typical tracksuits and national team badges, but the striking difference was they were all wheelchair-bound.

Boccia is one of the the fastest growing international and Paralympic sports, similar to bowls, and is designed for people with a disability.

This is the first time the competition has been held in the UK or Ireland and is an important qualifying event for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Sports Minister Carál Ní Chuilín will officially open the Boccia World Cup today.

Qualifying for the Paralympics was at the forefront of the minds of the athletes, who are every bit as competitive as any able-bodied sports person.

Team Canada competitor Josh Vander Vies from Vancouver had warmed up with a competition in England, where his team came second against Europe’s strongest nations. The teams need to be in the top 11 to qualify for London 2012.

“We were really pleased with how we did there,” he said. “We’re ranked 10th in the pairs. We are really gunning for 2012 and we’re feeling solid.”

The 26-year-old is a law student and motivational speaker. Born without all four of his limbs, he is among the most disabled of the athletes, yet he has a breathtaking optimism and spirit.

“I never had any limbs to miss,” he said. “I just learnt how to do everything by watching my friends. I can read and write, dress myself and do anything I want.”

Josh has always competed in sports such as shot-put, discus and javelin. He became interested in boccia because it requires a mental strategy.

“All other sports I did, you just had to train hard and perform, but in boccia you have to outsmart your opponent, you have to be thinking two or three shots ahead, and that’s what makes it more exciting,” he explained.

But the Canadians have some stiff competition from Team Ireland, ranked seventh, Team GB, second, and top of the rankings, Spain.

Thailand have also got some strong contenders. Ranked third in his category is Akarapol Punsnit (48), who has been playing for 13 years.

His team manager, Daranee Kachasrisawat, said they had flown 16 hours to get to the championship and are determined to qualify for London 2012.

Padraic Moran (27) from Bray, Co Wicklow, is optimistic about Ireland’s chances: “It all depends on the day. We know what we can do as a team.”

A journalist with East Coast FM, Padraic has cerebal palsy and found boccia was the one sport he could do because of the severity of his disability. “I have been playing since I was 12 and taking part internationally since 2006,” he said.

Team USA have some seasoned athletes with a determination to win. Lee Graybeal-Lobmeyer from Kansas has played since she was 18 and refereed boccia at the Paralympics in Atlanta in 1996. The 46-year-old said she has not let her disability prevent her from having a full life.

A total of 130 people have given of their time to help the games run smoothly, including 65 volunteers from sponsor Deloitte.

The CPISRA (Cerebal Palsy International Sports & Recreation Association) 2011 Boccia World Cup takes place at the Jordanstown campus of the University of Ulster from today until Friday. Tickets are free and available from Disability Sports NI, tel: 028 9038 7062.

Background

Boccia, pronounced ‘botcha’, is a target ball sport similar to bowls designed for people with a high level of disability. The aim of the game is to land six of your balls closer to the white target ball than the opponents’ balls. It can be played as an individual, in pairs or as a three-a-side team. Boccia is one of the fastest growing international and Paralympic sports, with over 50 countries |involved.

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