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2 Regina hoopers part of Canadian squad competing in last-chance Paralympic qualifier next week | CBC News



Eight men’s wheelchair basketball teams, including Canada, will be in Antibes, France, next week vying to claim one of the last four spots available for the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games.

Two of the athletes competing for the red and white — Nik Goncin and Garrett Ostepchuk — are from Regina.

For Goncin, this is far from the first go-around. Having been a senior national team athlete since 2013, and a current co-captain, this would be his third Paralympics should the team qualify. He credits much of his athletic and personal development to the time he spent honing his craft in Saskatchewan gyms.

“Everybody likes this underdog story,” Goncin said. “Being from Saskatchewan, because it’s such a small province population-wise, it’s been an underdog mentality to make the team and compete at this level. And I absolutely savour that feeling. I love being that. I love trying to prove that we’re small but mighty.”

Nik Goncin, left and Garrett Ostepchuk, both from Regina, are two members of Canada’s men’s wheelchair basketball team. Both men will be with the team next week as it competes for one of the last remaining Paralympic spots. (Angela Burger/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

The last chance qualifier, known as the repechage tournament, is high stakes for the Canadian team. They’ve featured in the sport since before the Paralympics existed, competing at what was then known as the Stoke Mandeville Games in the U.K. While the team dominated in the early 2000s, winning three golds and a silver from 2000 to 2012, they have had a harder time as of late, finishing eighth in Tokyo.

There’s an added procedural wrinkle this time around. Unlike previous editions of wheelchair basketball at the Paralympics, the field has shrunk to eight teams from 12. Goncin said he expects an elite level of competition to be on display with so much on the line.

“Ten years ago we probably had, let’s say, four to six teams that were fighting for those top spots. Now, we have worlds where we have 16 teams, and I’d say 14, 15 of them are on pace to really beat anybody. There’s a few standouts, Great Britain and the US, but they’re not as far ahead as in previous quadrennials.”

The repechage tournament is set up as a single round round-robin, with the last game being a crossover. The last game will be a win and you’re in affair. Canada’s group includes the Netherlands, Iran and France. The other teams involved are Morocco, Germany, Italy and Colombia.

Goncin won’t be the only Saskatchewanian taking the court. Garrett Ostepchuk is also no stranger to the international stage, first appearing for the Canadian senior team in 2017 and representing Canada during the Tokyo Games. He credits part of his early career success to the experiences he had here at home.

“Starting there was really enjoyable,” he said. “I really enjoyed the off-court vibes. And it gave me a good sense of what team camaraderie can be like.”

Ostepchuk, who now plays professionally in Spain, also credits Goncin with pushing him to achieve his goals.

“I played with him growing up, and seeing him and how far he went from Saskatchewan made me want to follow in his footsteps and try to do the same,” Ostepchuk said.

“I always saw him as a role model and he is a really good example of a good athlete from Saskatchewan who put in the work and learned there [in Regina] first and then continued to learn with the national team.”

A man in a white Canada jersey competes in wheelchair basketball.
Garrett Ostepchuk, from Regina, competes in men’s wheelchair basketball for Team Canada in Santiago in 2023. (Angela Burger/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Goncin said that he’s glad to have the younger Ostepchuk, known as G to his teammates, alongside him as he transitions from being a younger competitor to a seasoned veteran.

“I love that G is on the team. You know, we have a few other Saskatchewan players coming up too. I have big hopes for a couple of them. I feel like we can keep this going, I think we can get more Saskatchewan players representing national teams on the big stage.”

Both athletes see this year’s version of the team as a good mix of newer athletes and longtime fixtures. Ostepchuk hopes that, with a qualification, he can give those older athletes a last hurrah, should they choose to retire after Paris. 

“I think we have a good mixture of younger and older guys. Unfortunately, it’s most likely that this will be the older guys’ last time. And it’d be really nice to qualify to a Paralympics with them one more time and perform well at that Paralympics.”

The tournament runs from April 12 to 15. For those wanting to follow along, the action will be livestreamed on the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation’s YouTube channel. Canada will tip off against the Netherlands on April 12.

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