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.”