Why Mélanie Labelle is a Force to be Reckoned With

The first time someone suggested she try rugby, Mélanie Labelle rolled her eyes. She had considered tennis, cross–country skiing and swimming, but nothing really clicked. It was the summer of 2016 and Labelle was living in a physical rehabilitation centre when her medical team presented her with a wheelchair kitted out for rugby.

“The therapists gave me gloves that were secured with duct tape right up to my elbows and then said: ‘Go for it.’” She hurtled toward her opponent like a self–propelled bumper car, colliding in a din of clashing metal and laughter. Three and a half years later, Labelle is the only woman in Wheelchair Rugby Canada’s national team program.

Labelle was born on the ski slopes of Quebec’s Outaouais region. She spent her youth with a competition number on her back and has never stopped being active – even after suffering a spinal cord injury in March 2016. A competitive acrobatic swing dancer, Labelle broke her neck while performing an aerial move, losing the use of her legs and hands, and partial use of her arms.

“I was in shock; I had no idea which faculties I might regain,” Labelle says. Once she realized her physical limitations were permanent, she was determined to learn how to move again. “It felt like a matter of survival. I had to continue being Mélanie in this new life.”

February 25, 2020
Mélanie Labelle on the court with her murderball team
To score points, a player carrying the ball must put two wheels of their wheelchair across the opponent’s goal line.

A few months after her injury, Labelle decided to join the muscle–bound ranks of the Montreal Machines, a wheelchair rugby club.

When the rookie defensive winger first arrived, huddled in her oversize wheelchair, she met her adoptive family. “Every member of the team was learning to grow into their disability. That’s what really struck me. Right away, I was one of the boys.”

Labelle soon discovered that rugby was the ideal form of rehabilitation. “At first, my brain was sending orders to my body and it wasn’t responding. But as I kept trying, I made progress.” She learned how to throw the ball, and to catch it using her body as a cushion. Labelle earned her place on the Quebec team one year later.

Then, in March 2019, she was selected by Canada’s national team program. When she puts on the number 22 jersey these days, Labelle plays alongside people she calls her heroes.

This jump to the big leagues gave Labelle the confidence to start dancing again, a dream that had seemed unattainable when she first moved into the rehab centre. “I had closed certain doors, telling myself it couldn’t be like before,” she says. “I thought being in a wheelchair would hinder my ability to connect physically and emotionally with my dance partner. But although it’s different, the bond is definitely still there.”

Since nothing seems to stop her, don’t be surprised to one day find Labelle back on the ski slopes as well, maybe even with a number on her back.

Mélanie Labelle’s favourite cities

  • Misawa, Japan “This city’s spacious and pristine public bathrooms are wonderfully adapted for people with reduced mobility. There’s a culture of respect everywhere you go around the country.”

  • Prague, Czech Republic “The streets may be cobblestone, but you can get around here easily. I was able to explore, take the train, visit the shops downtown, all with minimal assistance.”

  • Munich, Germany “On a layover in Germany, I took the train to Munich to spend a few hours. Everywhere I went, people were setting up decorations for the Christmas markets that were opening the following week. I promised myself I would go back.”