Miles past that
Josh Vander Vies pushes Canadian athletes to persevere through pandemic and beyond
By Debora Van Brenk, BA’86, MA’87
His Paralympic medal tells a tale of his athleticism and drive, even if today’s button-down suit may seem a convenient disguise for an extraordinary life Josh Vander Vies has spent on two kinds of courts.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to win. Every single thing I could do, I’ve wanted to do it as best I could,” he said. “My disability is what people see first, all the time. But I forget about it – I’m miles past that.”
Born without arms or legs, Vander Vies, BA’09 (Political Science/French Language and Literature), grew up in Sarnia, Ont. and is a graduate of High Park French Immersion School and Northern Collegiate Institute. He earned a diploma in general arts and science from Lambton College before enrolling at Western.
As important as it was for him to cross the convocation stage, he also set his sights on making it to a Paralympian podium.
Vander Vies lived and breathed sports as a kid. He cheered the Blue Jays’ World Series championships in 1992 and 1993 and avidly kept track of Donovan Bailey’s record-setting sprints. He envisioned the training and focus needed to become a world-class athlete.
“In all those sports that I watched, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do that someday.”
So he swam, dabbled in shotput, threw discus. Then, he discovered boccia.
Pronounced like ‘gotcha,’ boccia is one of two sports played at the Paralympics but not the Olympics (the other is goalball). It is a game of stamina, strength, focus and strategy as competitors throw or roll a leather-covered ball to land as close as possible to a ‘jack’ ball while dislodging their opponents.
“It’s like a combination of chess and curling and archery,” he said. “That’s what drew me to the sport.”
He began competing at a local level, then regionally, and in high school made the 2003 national team and qualified “by the skin of my teeth” for the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, where he finished 11th.
“I was way too young to do anything meaningful at that time. But I wanted to win a medal so badly after that.”
As a singles player, Vander Vies won national championships six times between 2002 and 2009 and won a bronze medal at the 2011 Parapan American Games.
Partnering with former rival Marco Dispaltro, he is also a member of a formidable team, nationally and internationally. The duo consistently ranked among the top five in the world for a full decade of competition. The pinnacle: winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, England.
“We have a bond that goes beyond friendship. What we really had was a communication that was forged when the stakes were low. And when the stakes were high at the Paralympics, we took the fear of performing and turned it into something positive,” Vander Vies said.
Off the court, Vander Vies was elected athlete representative to the International Boccia Committee, named a director of the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), and represented Canadian Olympic, Paralympic and national team athletes with AthletesCan, Canada’s association of national team athletes.
At the same time, Vander Vies was attending law school at the University of British Columbia. He met and married Dalia, a former member of the Lithuanian national fencing team, and their daughter Olivia was born in 2013.
Juggling a marriage, family, law school, athlete advocacy, speaking tours, training and competition became increasingly difficult. The day he found himself on the road in a hotel room on Father’s Day video chatting with his young daughter, he realized his time as a competitive athlete had to end.
“All of us who are high-performance athletes don’t give it up easily – we go kicking and screaming into retirement.”
But he had gained valuable insights into the organization of sports, and other not-for-profit groups such as charities.
The law surrounding not-for-profit organizations is now his specialty in his legal practice.
Familiar with charities’ work as both an athlete and a disabled Canadian, it was interesting for him to explore what was underpinning them. What he found was an antiquated legal system that had no statutes or codification. Instead, it is governed by common law – a body of precedents tested and ruled upon by different courts.
His job is to sort through those laws – some of which challenge even the basic definition of a charity – and to make sense of them for his clients, large and small.
For Vander Vies, it means spending a lot of time doing research before he ever reaches a courtroom. (As a child, he learned to write by cradling a pencil between his cheek and forearm. Now, computer technology has made his work considerably easier.)
“People come to me with ideas for the good they want to do in the world and I provide them with the legal framework to do it.”
He is also working to hone his skills as an in-house counsel and provide leadership in non-profit governance.
And once the pandemic-delayed Paralympics eventually take place, Vander Vies will serve as assistant chef de mission of the Canadian Paralympic team working with athletes and with chef de mission (and retired champion para-swimmer) Stephanie Dixon.
He looks forward to helping Canada be frontrunners in supporting Paralympians and Paralympic Games. “We’re at the forefront of the movement but we’re seeing other countries like Britain and Brazil surpassing us not only in results but media coverage.”
Canadian athletes were among the first to say they would not compete in the Olympic or Paralympic Games in summer 2020 – a stance that cascaded to other national sports associations until the International Olympic Committee postponed the Games.
“I’m proud of how Canada reacted to COVID-19,” he said. “To continue international sports under those circumstances was just not possible. I’m in awe of the toughness and resilience that Canadian athletes are showing.”
He knows something of that resilience himself.
“You must persevere, no matter how challenging it seems. You might not always win or succeed – but you might get really close. I hope people know they have the opportunity to mould their own lives. I know that sounds incredibly trite but having the right attitude is where it all starts.”