For role models in sport, Marni Abbott couldn’t have picked two better individuals than Nancy Greene and Rick Hansen. After a distinguished career as one the world’s premier wheelchair basketball players, Abbott herself has become a role model for young Canadian athletes.
Growing up in the West Kootenays, Abbott’s neighbour was none other than Nancy Greene. They met at a local ski race, where Abbott was awed by the woman who had dominated women’s world skiing in the late 1960s. After meeting her idol, she wanted nothing more than to become an elite athlete herself.
The course of her life was changed however, in 1983, when a downhill ski accident left Abbott with a fractured skull, broken fourth thoracic vertebrae, broken cheekbone and three damaged ribs. Yet, even this obstacle failed to extinguish her competitive drive.
Sent to GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver to begin the long road of recovery, she met Hansen, who was rehabbing a shoulder injury there. As he did for so many athletes with disabilities, Hansen introduced Abbott to wheelchair sports. Although sceptical at first, Hansen’s obvious passion and early ideas about wheeling around the world hit the mark.
“He’s telling me about how he’s going to wheel around the world and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t even make it to the cafeteria at the end of the hallway,’” she recalled. When Hansen made good on his dream, Abbott’s outlook completely changed.
“If he could do that, then I knew I could do whatever I decided to do too.”
And she did.
Swimming was her first venture and she competed as a member of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association’s national swim team from 1985 to 1988. At the 1986 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, she swam to five medals—four gold and a silver.
In 1988, she discovered the sport that remains her passion to this day—wheelchair basketball. Making the national team in 1992, she won her first Paralympic gold medal at the Barcelona Paralympic Games. It was the beginning of a twelve-year association with the national women’s program as one of the key pieces in what can only be described as a dynasty. Two more gold medals and one bronze medal would follow at the next three Paralympic Games before retiring following the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Despite the many memories and victories on the court, her career highlight remains serving as Canada’s flag bearer at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics.
In between Paralympic competition, she led the Canadian team to three straight world championships in 1994, 1998, and 2002. During Abbott’s international career, Canada compiled one of the world’s best records in Paralympic and world championship play, including an amazing 43-game undefeated streak.
Her club teams, BC Breakers and Douglas College Royals, were consistent medallists at the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball finals for over a decade and Abbott was named to the tournament all-star team on four different occasions. For much of her 16 years in wheelchair basketball, she was the only class 1.0 point guard in the world.
To honour her amazing career and contribution to wheelchair athletics, BC Wheelchair Sports and the BC Wheelchair Basketball Society named Abbott female athlete of the century and millennium respectively.
In 1987, when Hansen was finishing his Man in Motion tour with the final leg through British Columbia, Abbott wheeled alongside her inspirational role model through Enderby and Salmon Arm. His amazing athletic journey was coming to an end and hers was just beginning.
Twenty years on, they come together once again, role model and protégé, but this time as inductees into the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.