This article was originally published on the Vancouver Sun website.
With his active, toddler daughter bouncing around the gymnasium as he delivered a motivational speech to elementary school students, it’s easy to see why Paralympic boccia player Josh Vander Vies is being pulled away from his sport.
But that doesn’t mean that the decision by the 2012 London bronze medalist in doubles to give up competition hasn’t caused him some anguish.
“It’s so hard to quit when you have something good,” said the 30-year-old Vancouver resident after his speech, sport demonstration and retirement confirmation to students at Norma Rose Point school at UBC.
“I was reading about Jon Stewart quitting from the Daily Show and he was saying you just go through these cycles of not really liking it, and then you like it again, and then not really liking it. Eventually, the cycle of not liking it gets longer and longer and longer.
“I was amazed to see that that’s what really happened with me, too. It was great to travel around and push myself and play the sport that I love, but I was finding that I’d rather spend time with my family and move on to the exciting other things that I have coming for me in my life.”
Those things include beginning his career as a lawyer and his advocacy for Canadian athletes as the volunteer president of AthletesCAN.
All Paralympic athletes have inspirational stories about overcoming odds, but few are as compelling as that of Vander Vies, a Sarnia, Ont. native who was born without legs and just short stumps for arms.
He did some swimming as a youngster, but discovered the best outlet for his competitive nature was with boccia, a sport specific to the Paralympics. Played indoors and mostly by people with cerebral palsy, the precise, tactical game is strategically similar to lawn bowling, only the balls are leather.
From his motorized wheelchair, Vander Vies tucks the ball between his chin and his left stump. He steadies it and then swings his stump, softly releasing the ball on a 10-foot throw.
A first-time Paralympian in 2004, Vander Vies just missed qualifying for the 2008 Games. In 2012, he and new partner Marco Dispaltro, a former wheelchair rugby player, silenced a boisterous crowd at London’s Excel Centre by beating a duo from Great Britain 8-2 in the bronze-medal match.
Vander Vies’ final competition was the 2014 worlds in Beijing when he and Dispaltro finished eighth.
“That was disappointing,” he said. “It would have been nice to go out with a bang and finish the momentum we started in London. But that’s the nature of international sport.
“The top players have a lot of dexterity in their hands. They have muscular disabilities, but very agile hands. I always saw that that was holding me back. I could compensate with my strategy and my performance under pressure, but there was always a plateau that I couldn’t quite crack.”
Vander Vies, who earned a double major in political science and French language/literature at the University of Western Ontario, recently earned his law degree from UBC. He now is a committed Vancouverite.
“Vancouver is one of the most wheelchair-accessible cities in the world, probably the most, so that’s a huge draw.”
He will begin articling this summer with Benefic Group, which works in charity law, tax and estate planning, major gift planning and investment philanthropy.
“It’s really fascinating. And most of the sport organizations in Canada are charities, so it gives me a nice sport tie-in.”
He is also in the first year of a three-year term with AthletesCAN, the collective voice of Canadian national team athletes.
“I’ll be heavily involved in athlete issues on the Olympic, Paralympic and national team side.
“It’s a huge honour that athletes from every sport have trusted me to lead that organization for a term.”
Vander Vies has a big list of things he wants to get accomplished.
They include creating better programs to develop athlete leaders, reviewing anti-doping protocols and Canadian responses and shining a more critical light on athlete and program funding.
“Are things like Own the Podium the right way to distribute funding? Is athlete assistance carding enough? $1,500 a month doesn’t go very far.
“And we’re releasing an article in the coming weeks called The Future of Athlete Agreements in Canada. It’s pretty neat that my legal career, it’s one of the first real tangible, practical areas that I’m going to be able to engage in.
“The athlete agreements are the contracts between each athlete and their (National Sport Organization). We’re looking at ways we can transform them from these documents of administrative control into building real high-performance relationships.”