St. Marys Journal Argus
After Darda Sales wrapped up her presentation on Tuesday, March 24 to students and staff in the gymnasium, Holy Name Catholic School Principal Brent Langan asked the audience to give her a rousing cheer as a signal of their good wishes for the upcoming Para Pan Am Games in Toronto. And, thankful as she surely was for their gesture, it was clear from Sales’ presentation that this member of the Canadian National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team is already well-placed to prepare herself both mentally and physically for the challenges ahead.
Sales, the Mom of twins from London, took a little over a half-hour on Tuesday morning to describe the farm accident that claimed her right leg at the age of three, and other challenges she overcame since that time to reach the top of the world’s rankings in two separate Paralympic sports.
She even brought along the Paralympic Gold Medal that she earned in 2000 in Sydney, Australia, as part of a World Record-shattering four-by-100 metres individual medley swimming relay team.
“I remember there were times when I was a kid that I would stand beside my desk in school and think, ‘this is the most boring song ever’,” Sales said of the Canadian national anthem. “But that night (back in Sydney), knowing that it was being played because of something I had done, I’ll tell you it was the sweetest song I ever heard.”
But, as Sales told the Holy Name audience, her life certainly can’t be described as jumping from one winning podium to the next. There were numerous “down” times, she stressed — a point she began her speech emphasizing, using a prop that’s very appropriate given the sport she took up more recently, after an injury forced her to give up swimming in 2010.
“The first rule of basketball is that, for a basketball to bounce, it first has to fall,” she said, standing — as she did for the entire presentation, including sometimes moving somewhat gingerly on her right-leg prosthetic — near the specialized wheelchair she now uses as a member of Canada’s National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team.
(She noted the original plan for Tuesday was to get students involved in a “demo” of the specialized wheelchairs, but they couldn’t arrange to get the wheelchairs on site. She said she’ll be back soon, however, with some friends and their wheelchairs — including St. Marys resident and Holy Name grad Eric Voss, a member of Ontario’s Under-20 men’s team.)
The first big fall described by Sales was losing her leg above the knee when she was just three after becoming caught in a grain auger on a farm. “I was playing where I shouldn’t have been . . . and the adults were too busy to be paying attention like they should have been,” was her simple explanation of that fateful day.
Every week from then on, with five surgeries taking place in the meantime, she had physiotherapy. By the time she was nine, she was so sick of physiotherapy that she didn’t want to go. So her therapist suggested swimming lessons as a way of keeping her inspired to work on healing.
“I’m the youngest of four kids in a very, very competitive family,” she explained. “This was my opportunity to have my own sport, so I jumped at the chance.”
Other setbacks she described included disappointing swims in Paralympic finals after blazing through the preliminary rounds, and what she described as “a rookie mistake” in her third Paralympics that resulted in a disqualification.
“That was the worst day of my life,” she explained, before describing the kind words and actions of others that helped her deal with the psychological pain.
“In that moment, I learned another important thing about bouncing: Sometimes you need somebody to help you bounce back.”
Interestingly, she said her most cherished memory wasn’t when she won a Paralympic or World Championship medal. It was in those third Paralympics, when she “bounced back” from that disappointment to record a personal best in an event for which she wasn’t expected to challenge. She finished fourth.
The story isn’t yet over. In last June’s Wheelchair Basketball world championships in Toronto — Sales’ first opportunity to compete on home soil at the highest level — Canada surprised many by winning Gold. Next up is the Para Pan Am Games, Aug. 7-15, also in Toronto.