Kevin Orr had been hoping to get a look at Zak Madell for a while. In February 2011, the coach of Canada’s wheelchair rugby team finally got his chance during a prospects camp in Winnipeg. As it happened, Orr’s first glimpse of Madell on the court was only Madell’s third time playing the sport. At 16, he’d already been a high-level participant in wheelchair basketball, but his rugby experience was limited to a pair of practices with a fledgling club in his hometown of Calgary. Madell’s first few minutes playing in front of Orr prompted the latter to ask Wendy Madell, Zak’s mother, a couple of questions. The first was along the lines of, “So, he’s really only done this a couple of times before?” The second hinted at the fact that Madell’s life was about to take a sharp turn: “Oh, and by the way, does he have a passport? Because I’d like to take him with me to Germany.”
Four years after that initial tryout, Madell is a central figure on the Canadian team, which will be chasing a gold medal on home soil at the Parapan American Games this August. It’s been a whirlwind journey for the 21-year-old, who, at age 10, contracted a serious staph infection that led to the amputation of his legs and fingers. But if Madell’s abilities on the court are obvious, they pale in comparison to the manner in which he carries himself. His unwavering positivity—along with a touch of gallows humour—has allowed him to seize control of a life that could easily have slid in any number of dark directions. Instead, he gets to see the world while doing something he’s deeply passionate about.
Madell uses both hands to clasp the iced coffee he’s enjoying on the patio of a downtown Toronto coffee shop on an unseasonably warm May morning. Wearing a backwards Toronto Raptors hat and an easy smile, the broad-shouldered Madell looks the part of a natural athlete and leader. “How many kids can say their full-time job is just going out and hitting people?” he says with relish. “It’s like playing bumper cars for a living.”
At first, Madell wasn’t sure that wheelchair rugby—originally called “murderball” thanks to the violent chair crashes—was the sport for him. Neither was his mother. “I would have bubble-wrapped him if I could,” says Wendy. But when Orr mentioned that in addition to taking Madell to a competition in Germany, he could pretty much promise him a spot on the team heading to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, the offer became too good to pass up. Madell now lists that Games experience as the highlight of his life. Sitting in the tunnel, waiting to come onto the court is a cherished moment that will remain in his memory forever.
Even during the more harrowing moments in his life, Madell refused to let the circumstances own him. When his brother, Cole, came to visit on the day Madell had his fingers amputated, Madell’s blood wasn’t clotting properly, so the bandages were extremely bloody. “When I walked into the room, he looked at me and smiled and held up his bloody bandage and said, ‘High-five!’ recalls Cole, who is three years Madell’s senior. “He knew his fingers were gone, he’d had [only a few] hours to deal with that, and yet when I walked [into the room], he had the biggest smile on his face and was making disgusting jokes.”
Madell’s room was a popular stop for hospital staff who wanted their own day brightened a little. “He’s all bandaged, he’s got bleeding problems, he can’t eat, he’s vomiting 30 times a day, he’s really, really sick—and they would come to see us to be cheered up,” says Wendy.
After six months at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, Madell returned home and was forced to watch the kids he used to run around with in the south end of Calgary play sports, while he was stuck inside. “That’s when I said, ‘I need to get back into sport,'” he says.
Initially, Madell tried sledge hockey, but that proved difficult because without fingers, he couldn’t really grip a stick (they even tried duct-taping it to his hands). Madell then tried wheelchair basketball, and he thrived, representing Alberta at the 2011 Canada Games. Because he’s impaired in four limbs as opposed to the single one required for basketball, Madell—who still plays some ball and was Alberta’s flag-bearer at the 2015 Canada Games—was also eligible to compete in wheelchair rugby. The game is played four a side, and has a rating system to categorize athletes in terms of their physical abilities. The lowest-functioning players are assigned a rating of 0.5, while the highest-functioning—like Madell—are rated 3.5. The total number for a team’s four players can’t exceed eight, so when Madell is on the floor, he’s paired with lower-functioning teammates, who tend to be defenders, while he is counted on to make plays and score points.
In November 2011—almost a year after his tryout in Winnipeg—Madell returned to the hospital to have a device in his heart removed. What was expected to be a straightforward procedure quickly turned dire when, just after the operation began, Madell’s heart stopped beating for 10 minutes. Doctors performed CPR and were able to resuscitate him. After another stay in the intensive-care unit, Madell—whose home base these days is Okotoks, Alta.—was back on the road to recovery and resumed training for the London Games. The Canadian team lost the Olympic final to Australia, the same team that beat Canada two years later at the 2014 World Championship in Denmark. Despite the latter loss, Madell was named tournament MVP. It was another benchmark in the progression of a guy who was the youngest player on the national team by about 10 years when he joined.
Between their bridesmaid showings at the two big events and the fact that they’re competing at home, Madell and the Canadian team won’t lack for motivation when the Parapans begin. The winning squad is also granted an automatic berth in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. “This is my life now,” says Madell. “I get to travel the world playing a sport I love, just having a blast doing it.”