Canada is sending its first ever mixed ability rugby team to the International Mixed Ability Rugby Tournament, which will be held in Cork, Ireland from June 5 to 10.
Oshawa Vikings Rugby Club will represent Canada, and Jeff Stralak and Elliot Smith are both excited to be part of the history-making journey team.
“It’s something that very few get to do, to represent your club or your country in an international tournament, and to do it with this group of athletes it’s humbling, exciting. We’re nervous, we’re jacked up,” said Jeff Stralak, a long-time rugby player.
“To do it together and to be the first, not only the first Canadian team to ever play a mixed ability contact rugby game at a World Cup — we’re the first from North America to enter a team in this tournament, and we’re hoping to do our club and country proud. It’s really exciting for all of us.”
Fresh Air9:13‘Everybody is just a teammate’; Canada sends its first ever mixed ability rugby team to an international competition
Elliot Smith, a player with autism, says he’s just happy for the opportunity to represent Canada.
“We’re just going to be showing that we’re there to have fun at the tournament,” he said.
“No matter if we win or lose, we’re just there to have fun and be inclusive”.
Some 1,100 rugby players from 14 countries will gather in Cork to compete. The six-day event will also see the inaugural Women’s Mixed Ability Rugby Tournament.
Now we’re going to represent our club and our country overseas in a full contact rugby game, it’s just been amazing.– Jeff Stralak, long-time rugby player
For Smith, playing with the Oshawa Vikings Rugby Club is all about “having fun” and “enjoying yourself.”
“[It’s] just being inclusive and working together with [players with] disabilities and players without disabilities,” he said.
Meanwhile, Stralak says playing mixed abilities sport has been “a light bulb moment” for him.
He says “I’ve had the time of my life” working with athletes who have never touched a rugby ball, and seeing them become formidable players.
“Now we’re going to represent our club and our country overseas in a full contact rugby game, it’s just been amazing,” he said.
As someone who played sports all his life, Stralak said he assumed everybody got the same chances he did.
But after talking with the athletes, their parents and family members, he realized that was not the case, and some people just weren’t given a chance.
Additionally, he said there were “barriers” — not with the athletes and the people with disabilities, “but society just putting barriers up in our minds or assuming the barriers are there that these athletes couldn’t play the game.”
“Once that gets taken out, once that dropped in my mind, it all clicked. Like, Elliot’s gone from not knowing how to play rugby to now being a beast on the field, and it’s just great to see,” Stralak said.
Elliot says he’s become “very good at rugby,” and he has some words of advice for anyone who’s never played the game.
“Just get out there, be active, show that you’re there to have fun and learn how to work together with disabilities and without disabilities.”