LONDON, Ontario — The culture of the London Cannonballs Boccia club is one of optimism and the ability to rise above challenges. It is a place for athletes with disabilities to learn how to use their minds to form strategies to outplay their opponents. A quote from their website helps to encapsulate the passion that drives them, “From recreation to competition, London Cannonballs athletes transcend their disabilities with every ball they throw.”
Debbie Willows, the founder of the club, and Tammy McLeod, the Vice-President of the club, are both spectacular athletes and passionate coaches: they’re incredibly driven women. They both possess a great deal of courage and resilience, which they’ve harnessed in major international tournaments, including the Paralympic Games and the Parapan American Games.
Boccia is a strategic sport, where slight changes in how a ball is thrown, kicked, or rolled down a ramp can mean the difference between winning and losing. Using six red and six blue balls, the object of the game is to get the team’s balls as close as possible to the ‘Jack’, the white target ball. The sport is one of the most inclusive sports offered for athletes with physical impairments, even allowing for the ball to be rolled down a ramp to reach the target.
Willows founded the London Cannonballs in 1989 after an illustrious Paralympic career, having won both a bronze and silver in boccia, and a gold medal in swimming. Willows met with the Parks and Recreation department for the City of London, knowing that the city was desperately in need of clubs and sports catering to people with disabilities. The Cannonballs began meeting weekly, and soon the club grew.
Next, Willows established an annual tournament called Boccia Blast in 1991, which included both competitive and recreational matches which fostered a sense of community and fair play. Like the club, the Boccia Blast tournament has grown, and in 2019, Boccia Blast had 40 participants from five provinces.
This past September 24-26, they celebrated the 30th Boccia Blast, which was also the first sanctioned boccia event in Canada in almost two years. With the help of Ontario Cerebral Palsy Sports Association and Thames Valley Children’s Centre, the Cannonballs were able to add a junior division, and five juniors competed in their first tournament.
At the first Boccia Blast, McLeod, at the time just 15 years old, gave boccia a shot, and quickly fell in love with the sport. Willows spotted a natural talent in the young McLeod, and Willows acted as McLeod’s first coach. Just a few months after developing a passion for boccia, under Willow’s guidance, McLeod competed at the national championships in Winnipeg. McLeod was undefeated in nine matches at the tournament and captured gold.
McLeod represented Canada four times at the Paralympic Games (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012), but the greatest achievement of her international career came in 2015, playing in front of a home crowd. McLeod competed in the Parapan American games in Toronto, and, at the Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ontario, she captured a bronze medal in team boccia.
Both Willows and McLeod see the value in building into a new generation of athletes, especially young athletes who are still learning about their bodies. Willows stated, “They’re still learning about their own body and disability and to be able to play a game with other people like you, really helps you to develop your social skills and confidence that you can do something.”
McLeod wears two hats: the first as Vice-President of the Cannonballs, alongside Adam Dukovich, and the second as coach and mentor to the athletes. Since becoming a certified boccia coach, she uses her wealth of experience and talents to build into athletes who are new to the game, as well as athletes who are at an elite level. One the athletes McLeod coaches is Logan Pennings, who, at the age of 7, is both the youngest and newest member of the club.
Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Pennings has always been aware of his condition, but what boccia opens up for him is the ability to see the possibilities available to him to use his mind to ‘out smart’ those he plays against. Pennings is assisted by the use of a ramp and uses it to roll his balls toward the Jack, and he’s picking up how to move the ramp to place his balls precisely where he wants them.
“His coach has been wonderful at getting Logan to try new things,” Amanda Pennings, Logan’s mother, remarked. “For example, when Logan is sure ‘his way’ will work, his coach has asked him ‘what if you tried—?’”
As Tammy McLeod shared new strategies, Logan has gained confidence. Sharing the new skills that Logan has picked up in his training, Amanda pointed out, “Playing boccia has helped him understand more of what he’s able to do with his body that he wasn’t aware of.”
The London Cannonballs are in the business of introducing possibilities to those who live with physical and mental disabilities, allowing them to shatter boundaries. When asked for ways that the City of London can support the club, McLeod stated they could always use more volunteers and donors. Volunteers are especially needed at practice where they use sports assistants to retrieve the balls after a throw. Willows stated that the sports assistants are “extensions of the athlete,” helping by picking up the balls and positioning ramps.
They especially need volunteers for two events in 2022. The first is the Boccia Blast Tournament which will be held on Sept. 29-Oct. 2. The Cannonballs also have the privilege of hosting the 2022 Canadian Boccia Championships in Nov. 15-20, 2022 at the North London Community Centre in London, Ontario. For more information, or if you’d like to become a donor, please see the London Cannonballs website: www.londoncannonballs.ca.
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