Brantford Paralympian shares his journey with sight loss and sport

11/16/2017

Bill Morgan (Cropped).jpgThe memories come flooding back -- the thrill of competing, the hunger to win, the stadiums filled with thousands of people, the hope-crushing injuries -- every time an aspiring athlete asks Bill Morgan what it’s like to be a Paralympian.

It happens a lot. The 42-year-old teacher living with sight loss represented Canada in judo at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. He has competed in dozens of international wrestling and judo championships.

Morgan retired at 35 after a career-ending injury. He headed straight to Wilfrid Laurier University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, then Brock University to earn a teaching degree.

Today, he’s back where his dream began, at W. Ross Macdonald School (WRMS) in Brantford, helping the next generation of students who are blind or partially sighted reach their potential. He knows he’s a role model.

“I enjoy talking to students," says Morgan. "I tell them to keep their minds open and pursue every opportunity; whether they’re interested in sports, music, art or higher education."

Paralympic Search, an athlete identification event designed to test participant aptitudes to excel in various Paralympic sports, and maybe one day represent Canada at the Paralympic Games, is one of the opportunities on the horizon – it's taking place in Toronto on November 26.

“I would never tell a student ‘you should be a Paralympian,'" Morgan stresses. “I didn’t even know what the Paralympics were when I came to WRMS. I was just excited about new opportunities.”

Morgan was 10 when he moved to WRMS from a small local school in MacTier. He was the student living with sight loss. He felt isolated and frustrated.

“I couldn’t run, jump, kick a ball or climb like the other kids,” says Morgan.

He completed grade four.

At WRMS, all the boys were encouraged to try wrestling. It offered hands-on physical contact. Eyesight wasn’t essential. 

“For the first time, I felt the thrill of competing,” recalls Morgan.

For the first couple of years, Morgan lost every match, but his coach told him to keep working, building his skills and learning from losses. By 15, he earned the right to represent Canada in wrestling at the 1990 World Championships and Games for the Disabled in Assen, Holland. He placed fourth, just short of a medal.

“I learned how to lose and use it as motivation, fuel,” says Morgan.

One of his teammates at the Assen event was competing in judo. Morgan’s coach encouraged him to try. The training is similar, but judo is a Paralympic sport whereas wrestling is not.

He climbed the ranks – yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black belt. He’s now a sandan. In 1998, he headed to the World Blind Judo Championship in Madrid and placed fifth. He knew he’d have to do better than that to reach the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. To qualify, he had to place first in Colorado Springs. He succeeded and entered the world of elite athletes.

Unfortunately, a training accident scuttled his hopes of excelling in Sydney. Hurt and discouraged, he went back to his old wrestling coach – by then, the vice principal of WRMS – who reminded him: “You might not get another opportunity.”

Fighting his way through the pain, he won two matches, then faded. He came seventh. Still, it was “the experience of a lifetime," recalls Morgan.

That propelled him to the Athens Paralympics in 2004, where he placed fifth and the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 where he competed with an aging body and a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). He finished seventh.

Since 2010, Morgan has moved into a new phase of life, but he looks back with pride and gratitude.

“Sport changed my life and the Paralympics was part of that,” says Morgan.

To learn more about Paralympic Search, visit paralympic.ca/paralympiansearch.

Morgan was inducted into the Ontario Blind Sports Association (OBSA) Hall of Fame at a gala on November 11 at the Best Western in Brantford.

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