Montreal man with cerebral palsy finds freedom and fun in boccia ball

Montrealer Alexandre Ziegler has been playing boccia ball since he was 13.

He’s 31 now, and speaking to CBC News at the Maurice Richard Arena in the city’s east end on Friday before a competition got underway, he said the sport encourages him to move his body and develop his autonomy.

“The sport is fun. It gives me a chance to meet people.”

Ziegler has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around, but he doesn’t let that stop him from competing in events like the National Boccia Open, which is being held on Friday and Saturday before the Montreal 2023 Boccia World Cup got underway.

Boccia ball is similar to bocce, with the aim of throwing leather balls as close to the target ball, or jack, as possible. It is a Paralympic sport. 

Ziegler plays in the BC3 division, which is for people who have severe locomotive difficulties, allowing him to use a ramp to help facilitate his throw of the ball. He said he tried categories that didn’t have the ramp assistance, but it was too hard.

His mother, Carole Santerre, volunteers with Boccia Canada, a branch of the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association that aims to give people the opportunity to play the sport.

Alexandre Ziegler, right, plays the sport with his parent’s help. His father, left, helps operate the ramp that is used to launch the boccia balls. (Simon Martel/CBC)

Santerre said she tried to get her son into horseback riding when he was younger, but it became too difficult. So they began looking for a sport he could enjoy safely, expressing himself and having fun.

They went to a demonstration and realized right away boccia ball could be a great way for him to develop his motor skills while enjoying all the social benefits that come with being involved with a sport.

Throwing the ball without the ramp did prove to be too difficult and caused pain, but they didn’t give up, she explained. 

Playing with the ramp is physically easier but still requires a great deal of intellect to ensure the ball reaches the target, Santerre said. His father helps operate the ramp, she said, and taking the physical strain out of the picture allows Ziegler to analyze the game and make strategic decisions.

Carole Santerre volunteers with Boccia Canada, a branch of the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association. Her son, Alexandre Ziegler, is a boccia ball athlete. (Simon Martel/CBC)

“He works a lot to practise his game plan, and the strategies he has to use,” said Santerre. 

“It’s hard for him because he has a little intellectual deficiency, but he is working quite hard. They are working as a pair quite hard.”

And as it turns out, there is plenty of competition in Quebec, with many homegrown international-level players in the province, she said.

As for Ziegler and his father, Santerre said they are getting better slowly, but progressively.

She said as a couple, they are active, sports-oriented people and it’s been nice to be able to accompany their son on his own sports journey.

Peter Leyser, head of Boccia Canada, said athletes from four provinces have come to Montreal to compete in the National Boccia Open. (Simon Martel/CBC)

The National Boccia Open attracted 51 athletes. Peter Leyser, head of Boccia Canada, said four provinces were being represented at the event. The sport, he noted, used to be oriented toward people with cerebral palsy, but it has opened up to those with other conditions as well.

“There are many different Paralympic sports that people with disabilities can get involved with, but the athletes who play boccia might not be able to find a home in other sports,” said Leyser.

“We are very pleased to be able to offer boccia to athletes with higher needs.”

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