July 23, 2014

Tennis ace nets place on Team Canada

Local resident shines a spotlight on wheelchair sport by securing spot in Paralympic Games

Joel Dembe is Canada’s top male singles wheelchair tennis player

Joel Dembe is Canada’s top male singles wheelchair tennis player

Photo by Ben Armstrong

When Joel Dembe looks back on his decision to quit his job at a major financial institution, it seems easy. Now, the wheelchair tennis player is training rigorously in preparation for the Paralympic Games later this summer. But a successful bid to secure a spot at the Games did not come overnight for the 28-year-old.

In order to improve his Canadian and world standings, Dembe has played 22 events in the last 12 months. His recent triumphs include netting a handful of singles and doubles titles, representing the country in the Pan Am Games and being named Canada’s top male wheelchair athlete.

Dembe didn’t initially know if his efforts would pay off. But since leaving his job in March of 2011 to focus on his sport, he has climbed from No. 4 to No. 1 in Canada and to No. 41 in the world. In London, he will face fierce competition, with half the contenders getting knocked out in the first round.

“You want to focus on pushing yourself past your limits, focusing on goals and not necessarily the outcome,” he says. “It’s about the process.”

As Dembe continues to train hard, his biggest concern is burnout. He has done a lot of strength training to build his endurance and prevent injuries. Shoulder issues are common in wheelchair sports, he says.

In London, Dembe hopes to feed off of the energy of the crowds. Most of all, he’s excited to represent his country.

“It’s the honour of getting to wear the red and white.”

“It’s the honour of just being there and being there for Canada and getting to wear the red and white,” he says.

Canada tends to dominate in sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball but lags behind Asia and Europe when it comes to wheelchair tennis, the athlete says. He is, however, optimistic that his going to London may help to raise the sport’s profile back home.

Dembe has already seen a shift in how the sport is perceived.

“I think there is a segment of the population that believes that the Paralympics are about everyone getting a medal and obviously sometimes confuses it with the Special Olympics, but that … is changing because, I think, there’s more media attention now,” he says.

Dembe started using a wheelchair at the age of six. He was born with a benign tumour that was removed near his spine, which resulted in partial paralysis.

The wheelchair tennis player originally started out in sledge hockey, but as a self-proclaimed puck hog and a kid who admittedly liked to be in the spotlight, playing a solo sport held a certain appeal.

“It’s just you on the court,” he says. “You win by yourself, you lose by yourself, so everything’s on your shoulders, and I kind of like that.”

Dembe has since gotten into doing motivational talks for schools and organizations. He finds that the kids really relate to him.

“I generally talk about the importance of sport and staying healthy, no matter what your limitations are,” he says. “I think, whether you’re in a wheelchair or not, that applies to everyone.”

Anyone who wishes to support Dembe as he heads to the Paralympics can do so through his Web site at www.joeldembe.ca.

The Post salutes Joel Dembe for representing Canada in the Paralympic Games and for raising the profile of wheelchair tennis.