In the semi-finals of the 2012 Paralympic wheelchair rugby tournament, bitter rivals Canada and the perennially-dominant US were locked in another tight match, tied 49-49 in the dying seconds. The reigning-champion Americans hadn’t lost a Paralympic match in eight years. The London crowd of 4300 was on its feet anticipating a dramatic finish and, boy, did they get it.
In this pressure-packed situation, Canada turned to long-time national team veteran Garett Hickling, just days shy of his 42nd birthday. Mustering all the wily grit and determination accumulated from countless on-court battles, Hickling caused a key turn-over and with half a second remaining scored the winning goal to propel Canada to the gold medal final. Even jubilant teammates, accustomed to years of his heroics, were stunned. “The old boy . . . I don’t know what to say,” said Mike Whitehead. “When G comes on the court, the belief factor just goes up another notch.” For Hickling, one of the world’s most physically dominant and respected wheelchair rugby players, it was just one more highlight in a legendary career chock full of them.
Born in the tiny eastern BC village of Mica Creek, Hickling grew up in Kelowna playing hockey, skiing, and skating. When he was 16, he was hiking with two friends at night on an unfamiliar DilworthMountain trail when they fell 300ft off a cliff. Hickling broke his neck, but he was lucky. One of hisfriends died of his injuries. During a long rehabilitation, Kathy Newman of BC Wheelchair Sports had Hickling test out every sport offered. One day while playing ball hockey he met fellow 2015 BC Sports Hall of Fame inductee Duncan Campbell, who convinced him to give wheelchair rugby a try.
“I tried it one day, hit a guy, knocked him out of his chair, and haven’t looked back since,” said Hickling. He joined the national team not long after and quickly earned a reputation for his speed, jarring hits, and intensity. For nearly a decade he was considered by many to be the best wheelchair rugby player in the world. Over twenty years later, he remains a force on Canada’s national team whilementoring a new generation of stars half his age.
A five-time Paralympian, Hickling has played in every Games where wheelchair rugby was contested, including as a demonstration sport in 1996, when he led Canada to gold. Since the sport received full-medal status in 2000, he helped Canada to Paralympic silver medals in 2004 and 2012, as well as bronze in 2008. His performances at the world championships are even more impressive. Besides being named MVP at each of the first three world tournaments ever held (1995, 1998, 2002), Hickling led Canada to five medal-winning finishes. This included a dramatic gold at the 2002 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, when Canada defeated the two-time defending champion US 25-24 on Hickling’s game-winning score with ten seconds remaining, a moment documented in the 2005 film Murderball. Closer to home, Hickling led the BC provincial team to 11 Canadian titles and two regional championships. In recognition of his accomplishments and contributions to the sport, he was chosen as Canada’s opening ceremonies flag bearer at the 2012 Paralympics.
Although slowly transitioning to the coaching and recruiting side of the sport, Hickling plans to compete for Canada at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.