Return of Montreal's Défi sportif provides outlet for youth athletes with disabilities

·2 min read
Boccia player Leah Gustave, 15, hopes to one day represent Canada at the Paralympic Games.  (Jean-Baptiste Benavent - image credit)
Boccia player Leah Gustave, 15, hopes to one day represent Canada at the Paralympic Games. (Jean-Baptiste Benavent - image credit)

Whether it be swimming, ice skating or basketball, 15-year-old Leah Gustave has never been shy about trying a sport, even though she was born with arthrogryposis, a condition which severely limits movement in her joints.

About four years ago, that curiosity helped her find her passion: boccia, a precision ball sport she hopes to one day play at the Paralympic Games, representing Canada.

"At first, I was just throwing balls. And I thought it was fun," she said, giggling with her mother by her side. "Then I learned how to play, how to strategize."

This weekend, the Côte-des-Neiges teen will be among 4,000 athletes competing at the 39th edition of the Défi sportif AlterGo — an adapted sports competition held every year in Montreal, which has been less accessible in recent years due to COVID-19.

The 2020 edition was cancelled. Last year's event was scaled back and mostly held virtually, with athletes such as gymnasts submitting videos of their performances instead of competing in person.

"It's more fun to actually see people you haven't seen in a while," Leah said. "It's a family."

Défi sportif AlterGo
Défi sportif AlterGo

Event organizers say after two years of disruptions, this year, there's a special buzz at Montreal's Maurice-Richard Arena, where several competitions will take place in the coming days.

Jérémie Brisebois, Défi sportif's director of sports and development, said the competition is a vital outlet for young athletes with disabilities, who often use sports to practise certain daily movements and help stay fit.

"The athletes were at home and it was difficult to get out. It was difficult to practise sports. It was difficult for mental health, and it was difficult for physical health," Brisebois said.

Brisebois, who has been involved with Défi sportif for about a decade, said the event has grown a lot in that time, even with COVID-19's interruptions.

Défi sportif AlterGo
Défi sportif AlterGo

"I think we've doubled the number of competition days. We doubled the number of athletes too," she said.

"So we really see that there is a need for those kinds of events."

On Saturday, Leah will take part in the national boccia event. Her love for the sport has even rubbed off on her mother.

Her mother, Maria Calderon, also learned the sport, becoming her daughter's first coach before taking what she described as a much-needed step back.

"Sometimes, I don't know when to put my mom hat on and when to put on the coach's hat," she said, laughing. "But I [try] to let the coach do his job. I'm just her assistant."

Défi sportif, which kicked off on Friday, will run until Sunday, May 1. The sports include hockey, track and field, baseball, volleyball and rugby.

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