Canadian Sport Institute Ontario believes in the power of sport, and its’ globally unifying principles. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been forced to adapt to a new normal and come together to support one-another in a variety of ways. This 4-part article series, written by award-winning sport journalist David Grossman, was designed to highlight and showcase our resilient athletes, and the practitioners who were instrumental in their return to sport.
“My emphasis was on being more independent and I had to learn how to do things all over again. I was committed and worked very hard.”
– Eric Rodrigues
By David Grossman
Eric Rodrigues knows all about the severity of enduring hardship and dealing with tough times.
He’s a talented Toronto-born athlete, plays rugby, and recognizes what the rewards of sport, training and keeping fit can bring to a person and a team. What’s even more impressive is watching Rodrigues compete.
Rodrigues does it while using a wheelchair.
Eric performing a cable-pull with Andrew Cochrane at CSIO – Photo courtesy of Jason Burnett
Vividly, he remembers that horrific day in 2009 when, vacationing with friends in Spain, then as a 29-year old, he had a snowboarding accident. Plunging 130 metres off a cliff, Rodrigues suffered a neck fracture, a broken femur with a punctured lung, had pneumonia and was in an induced coma for three months.
He had never anticipated spending half a year in a hospital on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains followed by rehabilitation in Portugal and Toronto in spinal cord injury rehabilitation programs. Nor did he plan on additional surgeries, like a tracheotomy, and subsequent treatments that would follow.
Rodrigues became a prisoner of the moment, facing pressure and uncertainty.
Perseverance, along with several streams of support, would be huge in salvaging his future – one that would open up with opportunities to represent Canada in international sports competition.
Always interested in a career in teaching, Rodrigues would teach himself how to play rugby. It all started while recovering at Toronto’s Lyndhurst Hospital, that he was introduced to wheelchair rugby through watching a documentary film about physically disabled athletes who play the wheelchair sport.
Looking back at his high school days in Mississauga and studying physical education at Castelo Branco University in Portugal, Rodrigues had enjoyed contact sport. After the injury, it was on instinct that he chose to make contacts with Ontario’s para-sport network.
“I had a rough stint, couldn’t use my hands and was pretty banged up,” he said in a telephone conversation, while taking a break from his current routine of practice and training. “Back then, I kept asking myself questions: why me, now what? I didn’t know anything about a wheelchair.”
Melissa Lacroix, Lead Physiologist, CSIO and Eric Rodrigues. Photo courtesy of Jason Burnett.
In time, Rodrigues would get answers. He chose to focus on living a normal life rather than dwell on the past. A huge perk was a man he met during rehab who would become a life-long friend, telling him all about how he learned to play wheelchair basketball.
“When I saw it on a computer, that sparked a flame for me,” he said. “My emphasis was on being more independent and I had to learn how to do things all over again. I was committed and worked very hard.”
The days of catharsis were changing. Rodrigues was adapting and said he was extremely fortunate to benefit from some iconic Canadian players and mentors.
“It was huge, and they made me get better as an athlete, my confidence boosted, and things changed in life,” said Rodrigues. “I learned that life goes on and there is always a better way to do something.”
In 2012, there was more pressure, and a different kind of optimism and intensity. Rodrigues got married. On the rugby scene, things took off as he made the Provincial team and helped Ontario win a Canadian championship in wheelchair rugby.
“That was one special year,” he recalled. “Two of the biggest highlights of my life – marriage and my first major wheelchair rugby event.”
Rodrigues had some physical setbacks in 2015, but credits “incredible staff at Sunnybrook (Health Sciences Centre in Toronto) for helping him get back to leading a normal life”. A year later, he was ecstatic after receiving an invite to try out for the National team and hoped he could continue to improve and earn a roster spot on Canada’s next Olympic team.
Eric holding a dumbbell at CSIO. Photo courtesy of Jason Burnett.
A former Ontario Male Para Athlete of the Year, Rodrigues has trained three times a week between June and October at the Toronto Pan Am Centre. He’s tightened his training habits, eliminating wasted time by replacing it with exercise and workouts five times a week at his residence.
Dominance is his objective along with and an opportunity to make Canada’s squad that will compete in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. That’s the same world-wide event delayed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The truth is that I am one of the least physically functioning players who is doing what he can to make that team,” said Rodrigues. “Training goes on and I am fortunate to have rollers (indoor treadmill of sorts) for my rugby wheelchair to improve my cardio, use gripping aids to help in strength and conditioning while getting great help from a really special person.”
Rodrigues was referring to Melissa Lacroix, the lead physiologist at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO) who is also working with the Wheelchair Rugby Canada program. He admitted that (Lacroix) is responsible for fine tuning his body better than had originally thought.
“(Rodrigues) is one of the hardest and most determined athletes that I have ever worked with and is open to hearing, learning and improving,” said Lacroix. “From the first time that we met, back in 2014 in Vancouver, he has wanted all the help and knowledge he can get to improve – and has been very appreciative of opportunities.”
Lacroix said she has noticed that Rodrigues has pushed himself to progress and advance when others would find it easy to move aside. Her job includes helping him train, improve and get stronger.
Melissa and Eric exercising at CSIO. Photo courtesy of Jason Burnett.
“He’s been at all our sessions and I remember when he came to practice with a feeding tube because of a neck injury,” she said. “It’s something that I had never seen before and he was just determined, training through adversity, to get that much better. He could have excuses but doesn’t. Easy-going, friendly, he’s the perfect student and always reaching out to see if everyone else is alright.”
David Grossman is a veteran award-winning Journalist, Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.