The Villagers

Waking up to a life-changing injury involves multiple daily physical and psychological challenges. The first consequence of such injuries is often voluntary and involuntary alienation fueled by stigma, leaving many to re-asses their lives in the face of new obstacles. For 26 years, the Variety Village Rolling Rebels of Toronto have helped athletes from all walks of life ease the physical and psychological consequences of congenital conditions and acquired injuries, through wheelchair basketball. Inclusion, sense of purpose, determination, and confidence have been key factors in the success of the Rolling Rebels. They have provided players with the hardwood where hoop dreams are reborn - fostering “ballers” who have gone on to represent Canada at the national level. 

Anthony McMillan practices ball-handling at home, in Toronto, beside his basketball shoe collection. He lost his left leg due to diabetes. Immediately after the amputation he spent months without leaving his apartment. "Wheelchair basketball got me out of the house and something to strive for," he said. Each year, close to 2,000 Ontarians with diabetes have a lower-limb amputation.

"When you get an amputation, the first step is to regain your balance, physically and psychologically. Basketball has always been part of my life. Before my injury I was a regular pickup baller," McMillan said.

Darik Symonowictz dives to catch a ball during a CWBL game between the Variety Village Rolling Rebels and the Cruisers Rockets on October 22, 2018, in Brampton, Ontario. "Wheelchair basketball reignited my desire to compete after years playing para-volleyball, which isn't so popular in Canada," Darik said. 

Symonowictz was victim of a motorbike accident that left him severely injured in his right leg. After rehab was getting him nowhere and pain was a constant, he opted for a voluntary amputation.

Nasir Halimi strolls around the CN Tower, in Toronto. He recently joined the Variety Village Rolling Rebels. He decided to stay in Canada as a refugee after the 2017 Invictus Games, where he competed as part of Team Afghanistan. Halimi used to be a commander of the Afghan Army and lost both legs stepping on a land mine in the Helmand province. In Afghanistan over 12,000 individuals among soldiers and police have lost limbs in the past 30 years. 

C.J. is seen at his grandmother's home in Toronto. He is in a wheelchair due to a spinal injury caused by gun violence. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. In 2018 Toronto counted 424 shootings and 96 victims. C.J has attended one Rolling Rebels' practice. The psychological aspect of the aftermath always plays a major role in readjusting to life. "I hope wheelchair basketball will help me refocus my life mentally and physically," C.J. said after his first practice.  

Coach Stephen Bialowas has been coaching wheelchair basketball since 1985 after discovering the sport while volunteering at Variety Village, an inclusive sport facility in Toronto. Ever since he has developed multiple wheelchair basketball talents and coached at national team level. "What I enjoy the most about coaching, is the shared commitment between coach and athlete and the infinite learning," Bialowas said.

A fall from a ladder, while working on a summer job, caused Lee Melymick a severe spinal injury. "The only possible reaction to all this for me was understanding the real entity of my injury. I restarted from there," Lee stated. During his time at the Lyndhurst Rehab Center in Toronto Melymick began shooting a basketball using his regular wheelchair, and through his therapist met the Rolling Rebels' coach Stephen Bialowas. 

When Melymick started playing for the Rolling Rebels he did not miss a single practice for two years. His strong commitment lead him to become part of Team Canada National Academy. He is currently one of the best 17 wheelchair basketball prospects nationwide. According to coach Bialowas, who fostered him as a player at Variety Village, his commitment to the game is unprecedented. "Normally it takes a while to adjust to a spinal injury. Lee skipped several stages," Bialowas said. 

Jason Conrad listens to coach Stephen Bialowas during a timeout of his last game with the Variety Village Rolling Rebels on Mar 25, 2018, in Kitchener, Ontario. "I want to play professional wheelchair basketball somewhere in Europe, that's my main goal now," He said before the game. At the beginning of September Conrad fulfilled his dream and moved to France to play for the professional side of the Cs Meaux Basket Fauteuil.

The Rolling Rebels practice at Variety Village, in Toronto. The number of players attending the training sessions fluctuates throughout the year. To reach the facility, several players rely on "Wheels on Transit" a Toronto public transportation service for disabled people, while others count on friends and relatives. The logistics behind a wheelchair basketball team is deeply connected to the level of mobility of each team member.

The past three years the Rolling Rebels have been the best Ontario team. However the lack of funds has prevented the side from taking part in the 2018 National Finals. "There is a different type of expense to face when para-athletes travel. Without sponsors, it is indeed tough to travel with a full roster," Coach Bialowas said. After a triumphant 2018/19 regular season, the Rolling Rebels, through a fundraiser organized by the players, were able to travel to the Prince Edward Island National Finals, where they placed second overall.

 "Here you go superstars, just think what we could do if we practice once in a while!" Coach Stephen Bialowas

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