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Debbie Willows, two-time Paralympian, inspires parathletes through boccia

Debbie Willows, two-time Paralympian, inspires parathletes through boccia
(Courtesy: Debbie Willows)

LONDON, Ontario — Great athletes build up the next generation, teaching skills and giving new athletes a firm footing upon which to stand. Among parathletes who participate in boccia, mentorship is especially important because it allows newcomers to the sport to learn what they can accomplish through the use of their mind and body.

The coaches and leadership at the London Cannonballs, a distinguished boccia club in Southern Ontario, pride itself on its ability to build into younger generations and this goal has been at the very core of the organization since its founding. Debbie Willows, the founder of the club, envisioned creating a place to encourage those with physical disabilities and other challenges to strive for more.

Born with cerebral palsy, Willows learned how to overcome boundaries. With an overwhelming passion for competing in sports, she’s used her successes to carve out a career as both an athlete and a speaker.

Willows has had an illustrious career as a Paralympian. At that 1984 Paralympics in Long Island, New York, Willows won a gold medal in women’s 25-metre freestyle swimming, but she also took part in sport which would define her athletic career and was for the first time being shown on the world stage: boccia.

Boccia resembles lawn bowling or curling, and uses six red and six blue balls, with the object of the game to get your balls as close to the Jack, the white target ball. It’s a sport that involves strategy, timing and tactics to achieve success. It’s also incredibly inclusive to those with the most severe impairments, offering several ways to land the balls near the Jack, including tossing, kicking and even rolling the balls down a ramp.

Willows won a bronze in individual boccia and silver in the team event. She also competed at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, South Korea.

Having competed on the highest international stage, Willows set her sights on learning the rules and regulations of her sport. In 1989, Debbie Willows trained to become a referee in Portugal, and came back to Canada to train others. Willows set a huge milestone in the Paralympics by becoming the first former athlete who was disabled to referee in the sport of boccia at the Paralympics, refereeing in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain and 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Next, Willows founded a boccia club in London, Ontario.

“I had to meet with the Parks and Recreations for the City of London,” Willows stated. “They didn’t have a lot of sports for disable people at the time and they were very interested. So we started a weekly club where people would come out and learn the game, and practice and play it.”

They started out with three people, and by the time Willows stepped down from leadership of the club in 2004, they had to divide the night because they had 30 people.

“After I got all these people playing for fun, I went to the city again and said ‘We need to have a tournament that’s recreational,’” she said.

Out of this idea came the Boccia Blast tournament, an event where competitive and recreational matches are played. At the first tournament, they had three players, but it continued to grow over the last 30 years, attracting athletes from across Canada.

Willows has left a wide legacy over the sport of boccia, including building up a new generation of athletes, like Tammy McLeod. McLeod attended the first Boccia Blast tournament, and at that event, Willows let her try out the sport. Instantly, McLeod was hooked, and began attending practices weekly at the club.

Tammy McLeod would compete for 27 years in the sport of boccia, attending four Paralympics (2000,2004,2008,2012). The highest point of McLeod’s career came when she won a bronze medal at the 2015 Parapan American games in Toronto. Recently, Tammy McLeod has become a coach and co-chair of the London Cannonballs, alongside Adam Dukovich.

Willows’ influence in the sport has continued to this day as she seeks to standardize the rules of boccia. Once a month, for the past six months, she speaks with a committee of international referees, who are also disabled, through Zoom and continues to help, “set up guidelines for referees who are disabled at the Paralympic games.” Her goal is to provide organizing committees with everything that they need to certify referees with impairments, streamlining the process of bringing in more referees who have shared experiences of the athletes.

An altogether mentally tough person, Debbie Willows has dedicated her life to providing others with physical and mental impairments to see beyond the boundaries that they have. Through her work in the international boccia community, and by establishing the London Cannonballs Boccia club, she has played a major role in the lives of many parathletes.

This is an unedited user writing submission. The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Best Version Media or its employees.

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