When the Brock Niagara Penguins rolled off the court at Brock University on a sunny Saturday afternoon in St. Catharines, they had no idea it would be their last time together on campus for more than a year.
The Penguins’ wheelchair basketball athletes were preparing to hold a tournament at Ian Beddis Gymnasium the following weekend in March 2020, but little did they know, the pandemic’s arrival would put life as they knew it on hold.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how society interacts, yet the Penguins managed to maintain their sense of belonging, a trademark of the parasport club’s culture.
“During this pandemic, I have seen volunteers and athletes interact in a way they would not have if we were in person,” said Penguins coach Loretta Davis. “Volunteers and athletes have gotten the opportunities to share personal experiences such as applying to colleges and universities and getting accepted.”
The Penguins, a student and community club operated by Brock, have found alternative activities for their competitive and recreational para-athletes who compete in a wide range of sports, including wheelchair basketball, handcycling, sit volleyball and swimming.
When the pandemic shut everything down a year ago, the Penguins quickly connected their athletes with coaches and volunteers, many of whom are Brock students, to keep their tight-knit community in touch with weekly check-ins.
“The Penguins did what we always do, and that’s put the athletes first,” said Davis, who took the lead in keeping teams engaged. “With the help of some of our incredible volunteers, we created opportunities for our athletes.”
Weekly check-ins turned into virtual motivational challenges, which evolved into regular social calls with paint nights, cooking, trivia and virtual escape rooms.
The Penguins began fostering their community online and now organize virtual Zumba, Pilates, yoga, dance and fitness sessions.
“As it started to look like our regular season program wasn’t going to start in September, we wanted to continue making a difference in our athletes’ lives,” Davis said. “So, we decided to run virtual sessions three times a week where we could still get active, socialize and get the sense of belonging they have always had.”
The group’s more-intense workouts happen on the weekend, when athletes from their basketball and volleyball programs conduct CrossFit.
Davis, who was diagnosed with spina bifida at a young age and uses a wheelchair herself, knows how meaningful the Penguins’ programming can be to a parasport athlete.
“The Penguins mean everything to me. I know first-hand how being involved with the Penguins can change your life,” she said. “I owe it to the Penguins for helping me become the leader I am today. It is not just a sports club. It’s a place where people with disabilities can come without judgment, get active, make friends and become leaders of tomorrow.”
In 2006, Davis and her husband, James, worked with Penguins founder and Executive Director Karen Natho to start a wheelchair basketball team.
“I joined the Penguins 15 years ago as someone who wanted to get active and start a basketball team,” said Davis, who was named Para-Athlete of the Year at the 2013 Sport Niagara Awards. “I started by coming to the Penguins’ Saturday gym program, which quickly changed to a Saturday basketball program.”
In 2012, she was named head coach of the boccia team, a precision ball sport similar to bocce.
Davis and the Penguins’ virtual programming drew interest from other parasport clubs as they welcomed athletes to their virtual sessions, including out-of-town programs from Sudbury and London.
“All these virtual sessions are to keep not just our athletes active and social, but others in the disability community, and hopefully to inspire some to want to try parasport,” she said. “We pride ourselves in doing things for the community. Our athletes always look out for one another, as any Penguin athlete will tell you. We are like a family.”