By Matt Ouellet
Two years ago, Ryerson student Nandini Naiyna Sharma tried sledge hockey for the first time. In September, Sharma was selected for Canada’s national team at the Women’s World Ice Sledge Hockey Festival in Norway later this month.
It’s a remarkable path, especially considering the fact that Sharma had never participated in competitive school or club sports prior to trying sledge hockey at a summer camp in London, Ont. Sharma joined the Mississauga Cruisers club team shortly after that camp, and has been captivated by the game ever since.
“I love the speed, I love the physicality, I love the people,” said the 19-year-old business management student. “I love just about everything there is to do with it. It’s a phenomenal sport.”
Sledge hockey is ice hockey played by athletes with lower body impairments. Players use a sled that sits on top of two ice skate blades to move around the ice, propelling themselves with a pair of short hockey sticks. Sledge hockey is one of six sports currently played in the Winter Paralympic Games.
In 2010, the same year a car collision left Sharma a paraplegic, it was announced that women could be named to traditionally male-only Paralympic sledge hockey teams. The Paralympics currently don’t have a women’s division for sledge hockey, since it has not grown in popularity among women in Europe to the same extent that it has in North America.
The tournament that Sharma will be playing at in Skien, Norway from Oct. 18-23 will feature Canada, the United States and a team of players from various European nations. She hopes to see the sport become popular enough for the eventual inclusion of a women’s competition at the Paralympics.
“Right now, our goal for the national team is to make it to the Paralympics,” she said. “We’re at a very formative stage, we don’t get funded by Hockey Canada; we are our own funding.”
While she had not played any sports competitively prior to joining the Cruisers, Sharma has always been a competitive person. She attributes this to playing sports with her older brother and male cousins when she was younger. She found her work ethic in her desire to outwork her opponents in these neighbourhood games.
“[The first time I played with her] she tried her hardest, she pushed a lot. She’s probably the one of the most committed players I know, and definitely one of the fastest too.” said national teammate and fellow Ryerson student Danica McPhee.
In the past few months, Sharma has upped her commitment to athletics. She has started training for track and field, specifically the 100 and 200 meter sprints, with the Cruisers. Living in Brampton with weekend sledge hockey practices in Mississauga and Oakville and school at Ryerson, Sharma’s weeks can be hectic. With a busy schedule like that, she knows the importance of having the right people backing her up.
“I have the most supportive family I could ever ask for,” said Sharma. “I have the most amazing mother, she drives me absolutely everywhere I need to go. My family always comes out to my games; whatever they can do to support my teams, they are there.”
Sharma is only in her first semester at Ryerson and she already has a very clear plan for her future. After she finishes her undergraduate degree, Sharma wants to get a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Her career goal is to be an entrepreneur that consults with vacation resorts on becoming more accessible.
“I work with my environment, so I don’t find my wheelchair to be as limited, but there were just little things that I noticed when I went on vacation,” she said. “If you have a bigger chair, or less mobility, or had a higher injury level, there are some little things that are harder to do, and that’s not fair.”