#30: Stephen Little

Written by Dr. Bob Steadward

Stephen Little became a paraplegic as a result of a high speed car accident while hitch-hiking in Northern Quebec. He was returning to Dolbeau from Arvida in August 1968 after writing his high school supplemental exams to boost his final marks prior to university. After a hospital stay in Chicoutimi for 2 months, he went to the Montreal Rehabilitation Institute in Montreal before being released in the spring of 1969. In those days, rehabilitation was thorough, and people with spinal cord injuries were beginning to live in the community as opposed to a long term care facility.

Upon his release, Stephen resumed his educational plans by attending the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton in the summer of 1969. The university is situated on the side of an appreciable hill, meaning that Stephen was climbing a lot as he went through campus. Fortunately, he was fresh from rehab and ready for the challenge. Many years later in 1981, he would actually help organize the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball Championship on the very same campus.

The New Brunswick years - 1969 to 1982

While a student that summer at UNB, Stephen was made aware of a wheelchair sports team that was practicing in advance of the Canadian Wheelchair Games to be held in Hamilton in August and was invited to attend a practice by a local occupational therapist, Barb O’Shea. At this practice, he met Andy Taylor and Judi Cook, both physiotherapists in Fredericton. Andy had been aware of wheelchair sports while in Europe and had undertaken to organize and train a New Brunswick team with Judi as his eager and capable accomplice. Stephen was ultimately selected for the team – as were 10 other people who trained with him – and registered for the games in Hamilton.

His first competition in Hamilton was an eye-opener for Stephen. Apart from the thrill of his second flight (and his first as a paraplegic), travelling through Montreal and on to Toronto was exciting! He got to know members from other teams as they were all trucked from the airport to MacMaster University. Having never played wheelchair basketball before, Stephen was not a strong competitor, and Team New Brunswick ended in the bottom half of the standings. However, Stephen managed to win a bronze medal in backstroke swimming, and left with the desire to continue wheelchair sports while at university. Stephen, Sandy Devenney (nee Davenport), Judi, Andy, Carl Constantine, Fred Edney, and several others returned to New Brunswick after the games and organized the Elm City Wheelchair Sports Club. An additional club was also organized in Saint John by Aline and Allen Meade, Frank Henderson, Bob Murray, and Brian Mills.

Stephen Little and Team New Brunswick at the 1978 Nationals in St. Johns, Newfoundland & Labrador
Stephen Little and Team New Brunswick at the 1978 Nationals in St. Johns, Newfoundland & Labrador

In subsequent years a team was organized in the Bathurst area by Clarence Bastarache, Lucie Raiche, Camille McGraw and others.  John (Jake) Donahue practiced solo in St Stephen. Together, Stephen and others constituted the NB Wheelchair Sports team that competed at National Games for the next 15 years. 

The format for provincial, national, and international wheelchair sports competitions that Stephen attended had evolved from the early 1960’s. In the early years, athletes competed in multiple sports, ranging from traditional track and field events, archery, and swimming, through to more specialized events such as wheelchair basketball, volleyball, table tennis, precision javelin, and wheelchair slalom. Stephen competed in all field events, solo and team swimming, single and doubles table tennis, basketball, volleyball, the pentathlon, and specialty events. Over the years he brought home gold, silver, and bronze medals representing New Brunswick. His fellow competitors from New Brunswick at the time were also highly successful, and their provincial team was the national wheelchair volleyball champions for two years in a row in the 1970’s.

Competition at a regional level in the Maritimes also grew in the 1970’s. Stephen acted as a general organizer during this period, introducing wheelchair sports to Prince Edward Island as well as a wheelchair basketball league in New Brunswick comprising of Bathurst, Fredericton, and Saint John. Regular travel, fundraising, and practice kept them all very busy and motivated them to continuously improve their performances. At a basketball in Charlottetown, Stephen was awarded the trophy for Most Valuable Player. There were many stories of comradery, friendship, and even love that occurred during those times, and many persist today.

International Competitions - 1973, 1974 and 1976

Stephen had the honour of representing Canada on three teams, with team sizes ranging from 20 to 50 people. Each athlete competed in multiple sports, as was the custom. The 1973 Pan American Games took place in Lima, Peru, where teams from across the Americas gathered for competition. Stephen’s personal highlight from these games was his gold medal in backstroke and his silver medal in the medley relay swim event.

In 1974, Stephen went on to compete for Team Canada at the Stoke Mandeville Games in England. While he did not take home any medals at these games, Stephen greatly enjoyed the competition and met many wonderful people. At this point in time the Canadian wheelchair basketball team was in its infancy and competition was tough. However, from the 1980s and onward, the Canadian men’s and women’s teams became very competitive, winning several championships at the world level.

Stephen LIttle (left) Clarence Bastarache (center) and Rene Masse (right) at the 1974 Stoke Mandeville Games
Stephen LIttle (left) Clarence Bastarache (center) and Rene Masse (right) at the 1974 Stoke Mandeville Games

In 1976, Stephen was once again invited to be a part of Team Canada, this time at the 1976 Olympiad in Toronto. Once again, Stephen performed well, but unfortunately did not take home any medals. However, the opportunity to be a part of the host nation and witness talented athletes, such as the Canadian amputee high jumper Arnie Boldt break a world record was a real thrill for Stephen.

The Saskatchewan Years - 1982 to 1984

In 1982 Stephen moved to Saskatoon for work and immediately joined the wheelchair basketball league. Although the distances were greater than in New Brunswick, the team managed to compete locally and in regional tournaments in Alberta and Manitoba. As a province, they were competitive.

The highlight of his stay in Saskatchewan was organizing and hosting the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in 1984. To this day, Stephen still stays in touch with some of the Saskatchewan athletes with whom he once competed.

The Ontario Years – 1984 to 1988.

Upon moving to Toronto, Stephen connected with Chris Stoddart, a direct competitor of his, and got involved with a local wheelchair basketball team in the city. Together, they competed across the province. Unfortunately at this point Stephen was travelling a lot for work and could no longer devote as much time as he needed to remain competitive. Thus, he made the decision to retire from competitive sports.

Final Thoughts

Stephen Little cites wheelchair sports as having been “good to him and good for him.” Community awareness and appreciation of the struggles and accomplishments of people with disabilities flourished as a result of wheelchair sports in Canada, and breaking down barriers is exactly what athletes did by convening to compete. Demonstration wheelchair sporting events in many small communities were often the first realization for many that persons with disabilities could be active and part of a larger community.

The world of wheelchair sports evolved through the 1980’s with the Paralympics and specialized world championships becoming the new norm. Basketball, archery, and riflery integrated with their able-bodied counterpart organizations. All of the success enjoyed today by hard working athletes with disabilities can be traced to a dedicated core group of athletes across Canada who pioneered the sports and broke the barriers to integration.

Stephen Little competing for Team New Brunswick in 1974
Stephen Little competing for Team New Brunswick in 1974