At the age of 10, Zak Madell was diagnosed with a life-altering illness. However, Madell has made the most of the unfortunate event, he devoted himself to sports and has become a Paralympic athlete.
“There was nothing I could do about it once it had happened, so there was no use in dwelling on it and moping around.” - Zak Madell
On Oct. 17, 2004, Madell and his family were at their cabin in Little Bow located just south of Vulcan, Alta., when he started feeling ill. He initially had flu-like symptoms and he drank plenty of water with hopes of sleeping it off.
Later that day, Madell had a chill he could not shake, so he warmed up in a bath. When his mom came to check on him, she found that his lips were turning blue.
“That’s when we realized this was more than just a flu or something, this kid is actually really sick,” he said.
Madell needed serious medical attention. The nearest hospital was the little county hospital in Vulcan and when they arrived, Madell was hooked up to IVs right away.
“They were not prepared to deal with what was going on,” explained Madell about his experience with hospital staff.
As soon the staff realized that Madell had a septic staph infection, an emergency response team from Calgary came to take him to an intensive care unit at the Children’s Hospital.
Usually for a case this severe, the STARS Air Ambulance would come for the patient. But unfortunately, there was a severe blizzard and the helicopter was unable to fly that day. The only way to get to a hospital was to drive, and driving in those conditions was very dangerous and time consuming.
Finally, after a few hours, Madell was able to get the care he desperately needed.
“I was on life support for the first several weeks, and tubes sticking out of everywhere in my body that they could possibly find a vein to stick it in.”
Madell remained at the hospital for about six months dealing with surgery, amputations of his fingers and legs, and rehabilitation afterwards. During these tough times he remained as positive as he could. Madell says he was very fortunate to have a lot of support from family, friends, and medical staff to help him get through it.
“There was nothing I could do about it once it had happened, so there was no use in dwelling on it and moping around.”
As a child, Madell was very active and played many sports, with his favorite being basketball. It was hard for him to imagine a life without sports.
Despite his amputations, Madell was determined to keep up an active lifestyle. So, after a long, hard year of rehabilitation, he got back into sports. By doing so, he was able to get into a healthy mindset, stay in shape, and get his life back.
He started out with sledge hockey but had some trouble holding a stick.
“The only thing is that, in order to hold hockey sticks, fingers come in very handy and so there was a lot of duct tape involved.”
Next, Madell got into basketball, a sport he always really enjoyed. He had the basic skills and just had to get the hang of using a wheelchair while playing, too.
In 2011, Madell was approached to try out wheelchair rugby. He was hesitant to make the switch because he always thought that he was going to make it in the Paralympics for wheelchair basketball and was not ready to give up that dream.
Madell continued to play basketball for a while, then one day decided he could use a break.
He was invited to the prospect camp for the national wheelchair rugby team. Having never played a game of rugby before in his life, he went and “goofed around.”
Little did he know, Kevin Oar, the head coach for the Canadian wheelchair rugby team, was there and saw potential in Madell. At the first game, Oar asked Madell’s mom, Wendy, if her son could accompany the team to Germany for experience. At this point, Madell was not ready for the jump and respectfully declined the offer.
At the second game, Oar came up to Wendy again and asked if her son could go try out for nationals. However, Madell was still in high school and wanted to focus on that first.
By the third game of the tournament, Oar returned to Wendy and told her that they were sending 12 people to the London Paralympics next fall, and that if Madell could be ready, he should go.
When Wendy told her son the news, Madell looked at her and said, “okay, I guess I’m a rugby player now.”
Madell had only been playing rugby for a little more than a month and had already made it onto the national team. Luckily, all of his teammates were very supportive of him starting out and they made the transition easy.
Madell’s teammates have nothing but good things to say about him. One teammate in particular, Ian Heerensperger, has been playing with Madell since the beginning of his wheelchair rugby career.
“It is actually really wonderful having Zak as a teammate. He brings a lot of experience and just charisma,” Heerensperger said.
Many of the players have been together for more than five years so they have had a lot of time to get to know each other.
One of the first things people notice about Madell is his smile and passion for life.
Terry Tenove, another teammate of Madell, said, “He’s got the biggest smile I’ve ever seen [...] he is probably the happiest person you know.”
Cliff Wooden has been coaching Madell for six years now and he is happy to have someone on the team with such great court smarts.
“He has knowledge out there and the ability to make quick decisions that other players just don’t have,” said Wooden.
At the 2012 London Paralympics, Team Canada won the silver and Madell was a part of the win. At only 18, Madell was a Paralympic athlete and by the end of the game, he was given the honor of being flag bearer for team Canada – and he could not have been happier.
Madell proves that you can do anything you set your mind to. After everything he has been through, Madell does not feel like the accident was an unfortunate event.
“I like to think of it more as a blessing now than as a curse,” said Madell.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Nancy Wong
- By Carlie Belbin