Two-time Paralympian paying it forward by training Clinton man to play sledge hockey
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
A chance meeting in London has led to a budding friendship and months of mentorship between an aspiring sledge hockey player from Clinton and a two-time Paralympic silver medallist from Exeter.
It all began last September when Carson Hymers of Clinton, who had recently been diagnosed with ataxia - a degenerative nerve disease that affects co-ordination, balance, speech and more - said he wanted to try to play sledge hockey. His parents, Brad and Darlene, took him to London and, on an uncharacteristically quiet day at the arena, found just one other person on the ice that day.
That person was James Dunn, a Wallacetown native who, in 2018, became the youngest member of Canada’s national para ice hockey team at the Pyeongchang Paralympic Games. There he won silver for the country, a feat he would repeat with the team in 2022 in Beijing. He is now an assistant captain of the national team and lives in Exeter.
As Carson began to learn how to operate on the ice alongside Dunn on that very first day, Darlene spoke with an arena employee, saying she couldn’t believe her luck to be able to use a largely-empty arena. The employee told her she was lucky for another reason and that her son was sharing the ice with a prominent paralympian.
Darlene then thought she would try her luck in speaking with Dunn, using the time-honoured, “hey you!” call-over. The two began speaking and Dunn couldn’t be nicer, she said. It didn’t take long for Dunn to become interested in working with Carson, scheduling regular trips to the Clinton arena so the pair could work together and Dunn could teach Carson the ropes of the sport. Darlene insisted on reimbursing Dunn for his time, mileage, etc., but Dunn refused and now Brad and Darlene only force the occasional donation on Dunn, even if he insists it isn’t necessary.
Since then, the pair can regularly be found at the Central Huron Community Complex on Monday afternoons, spending an hour or so together on the ice, working on everything from stickhandling to shooting to just learning balance in their sleds. They always close out their sessions with a race around the rink, Carson moving forward and Dunn going backwards. When The Citizen was invited to take in the session and speak with the young men on Monday, Feb. 5, Carson won it for the first time.
The two young men are both 23 years old, born just over a week apart. Carson’s journey to sledge hockey began in about 2018. Always an active child who excelled in both soccer and hockey, Carson began informing his parents that he wanted to drop physical activities, such as hockey, soccer and even gym class at school, one by one. When he finally asked about dropping gym class, Darlene knew something was up and asked her son to put his cards on the table.
She said she began to notice her son’s tremors and they began to discuss further symptoms he was experiencing. They began the medical journey to figure out what was going on, travelling down several roads of diagnosis but coming up short before eventually arriving at ataxia. Right now, Carson is able to walk, but can be unsteady at times. However, due to the degenerative nature of the disease, the condition will continue to worsen as the years go on.
Dunn had a different path to sledge hockey; one that began at a much younger age.
In 2011, when was 11, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his right leg, eventually undergoing chemotherapy before having to eventually have his leg amputated.
For Dunn, it was also a chance meeting that led him to sledge hockey. No one reported shouting “hey you” at one another, but, when Dunn was in the hospital, he met Tyler McGregor, who was also there receiving treatment.
McGregor was a AAA hockey player before being diagnosed with spindle cell sarcoma, which resulted in months of chemotherapy and the eventual amputation of his left leg. Encouraged by his former coaches to try sledge hockey, McGregor is now the captain of the men’s national team and is a three-time medallist (adding a bronze in Sochi in 2014 to the two medals Dunn has won alongside him).
It was McGregor who extended his hand to Dunn, encouraging him to give sledge hockey a try and working with him to learn the ropes.
In speaking with The Citizen at the arena that day, Dunn said it was his relationship and mentorship with McGregor that made him want to do the same for Carson. To be able to do that for someone else, he said, was something he really wanted to take on.
Looking back at his own journey, Dunn said it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with sledge hockey, as different as it was from the traditional ice hockey he had played as a child. He began playing in 2013, so he now has over a decade of experience under his belt, in addition to the Paralympic Games and World Championship medals.
He admits that he never expected to reach such heights. Sledge hockey, for him, began as a way to find something positive within a challenging situation and, aside from dreams of Canadian hockey glory as a child, he never dreamed he would be representing his country on the ice and winning medals in international competition.
For Carson, he said he felt it was time to return to the physical activity he had loved so much before his diagnosis.
He’s grateful for the work that Dunn is doing with him and the relationship they’ve fostered, but admits it has been hard to get the hang of sledge hockey. The balance and stick handling skills have been slow coming, he says, but he feels as though he’s improved since last fall, working hard at it on a regular basis.
Dunn is so good, Carson said, that it can be intimidating at times, but he tries to remind himself not to compare the two skill levels, with Carson as a beginning and Dunn as a Paralympian with over 10 years of experience.
And Carson has improved. His balance has gotten better in the months since that fateful meeting last fall. On the bottom of a sled, there are two blades to facilitate skating. When Carson began, his blades were four inches apart and now they’re just three inches apart. (They get closer together the more experienced the player. For example, Dunn’s blades are about an inch apart, though he says that some of his Canadian teammates play with blades right beside one another, but Dunn hasn’t seen a benefit to having them that close together, though it’s all just a matter of personal preference.)
Dunn says he has been reminded a lot of his own journey through working with Carson. He remembers trying to find his balance and learn to work well with both of his hands (a necessity in sledge hockey, as opposed to traditional hockey, in which players are either right- or left-handed - in sledge hockey using both hands to skate and stick handle is essential), so he’s able to help Carson break through walls as he learns the craft of the sport.
Darlene and Brad both agree that they’ve seen a tremendous improvement in Carson in regards to his emotional state. He is confident like he hasn’t been in years, Darlene says, and is back having fun on the ice once again after so much time away - a proclamation that would bring a tear to any parent’s eye.
Central Huron Deputy-Mayor Marg Anderson was also part of Monday’s session, watching it alongside Brad and Darlene and speaking with them as Carson and Dunn took to the ice. She said seeing sledge hockey success right there in Clinton is inspiring and she wished more people knew about its benefits. She hoped that perhaps a professional team or even Dunn’s national team would consider playing a game in Clinton that would, no doubt, introduce a lot of new people to the sport.
Dunn said he has truly been enjoying his time with Carson, not just from a hockey perspective, but from a personal perspective as well. They have fun on the ice, learning together and finding a new way forward for a pair of Canadian boys who just want to play hockey. In fact, they both hoped for a check-in a few months down the road to see how Carson is coming along, so stay tuned!