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Human to Hero: Wheelchair warrior in the world of 'murderball'

By Paul Gittings, for CNN
updated 10:40 AM EDT, Wed May 9, 2012
Garret Hickling, right, wrestles with an opponent during Canada's losing clash to eventual winners Australia at the Paralympic test event in London. Garret Hickling, right, wrestles with an opponent during Canada's losing clash to eventual winners Australia at the Paralympic test event in London.
No holds barred
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Wheelchair sport worldwide
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  • Garet Hickling is one of the top players in wheelchair rugby
  • The 41-year-old Canadian will be targeting gold at the 2012 Paralympics
  • Hickling broke his neck in a fall in 1987 which killed one of his friends
  • He is renowned for his robust play in a sport once named "murderball"

London (CNN) -- Garett Hickling's personal motto is, "No fear -- give 110%" -- and he certainly lives up to it.

Despite having broken his neck in a 300-foot cliff fall that killed one of his friends, the 41-year-old Canadian is a legendary figure in the brutal Paralympic sport of wheelchair rugby -- or "murderball" as it was originally named.

Teams are 12-strong but only four wheelchair athletes are allowed at any time on the court, which is similar to a basketball space, with the basic aim of crossing into the scoring zone at either end while carrying the ball.

Contact between wheelchairs is allowed -- and frequent -- while players often get tipped out of their chairs as the action is fast and furious.

Human to Hero: Garett Hickling

Hickling, who took up the sport in 1993, is one of its leading players and has the scars to boot. He had to have his neck realigned in 2004, ripped his left tricep in 2008 and last year separated his right shoulder.

He has been MVP many times at major international competitions with Canada, including the 2002 world championships in Sweden, where he led his country to the gold medal.

Canada won a bronze medal when wheelchair rugby was introduced to the Paralympics in 1996 as an exhibition sport, and then placed fourth when it gained full status at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Garett Hickling: Fast facts
Lives: Ontario, Canada

Age: 41

Sport: Wheelchair rugby

Profession: Full-time athlete since 2000

Training regime: Six or seven days per week

Diet: About 3,500 calories per day

Relaxation: Watching a comedy like "Family Guy"

Silver and bronze medals have followed in Athens and Beijing for Hickling and his teammates.

Broken neck

Hickling was brought up in British Columbia and played "pretty much any sport imaginable," including ice hockey, baseball and football.

But in February 1987 came the accident which was to leave him in a wheelchair.

Out with friends, tragedy struck when they fell down a 300-foot cliff. One died, the other suffered severe injuries, and Hickling broke his neck.

Determined not to let his disability curtail his sporting activities, Hickling initially took up wheelchair basketball and road hockey, but it was a meeting with Duncan Campbell, one of the Canadian founders of wheelchair rugby, which changed his life.

"He got me to come out, hit my first guy -- knocked him out of his chair -- and haven't looked back since," Hickling told CNN's Human to Hero series.

That was in 1993, when he was 23, and he has now been competing at the top level for nearly 20 years.

North American rivalry

For much of that period, Canada's players have been battling with their neighbors in the United States for global supremacy in wheelchair rugby.

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In the five world championships held since 1995, the U.S. has come out on top four times, with Canada's 2002 triumph in Gothenburg breaking that chain.

But the most recent championships on home courts in Vancouver saw Hickling and his teammates back in fifth spot.

Despite that setback, he still relishes the competition, particularly against the Americans.

"There's definitely a little bit of rivalry there because the U.S has been ranked number one for many, many years," he said.

"There's definitely a rivalry because we want to be there, and being such close neighbors we compete against each other a lot. "

But with the growing popularity of the sport, other countries are muscling in on the medal action.

Golden dream

Heading into the 2012 Paralympics in London, which begin in late August two weeks after the Olympics finish, Hickling believes that the destination of the gold medal is no foregone conclusion, despite the traditional U.S. domination.

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"Now, it's anybody's game. In these Olympics you actually don't know who's going to win," he said.

The result of the Paralympic test event in London last month would appear to back up Hickling's assertion, with Australia beating hosts Great Britain in the final.

Canada claimed the bronze medal, beating Sweden, but all the matches were close and high-scoring affairs.

In the likely autumn of his outstanding career, Hickling is desperate to add gold to his collection, having come so close in Athens and Beijing.

"I've always enjoyed rugby but my ultimate is to go for that gold," he said.

"That helps motivate me, makes me train harder, makes us go out six or seven days a week and try to be in the best shape we can be and ready to go out there and pound some chairs."

Sporting philosophy

As Hickling's motto suggests, he is not an athlete who leaves anything on the court.

"I try to give 110% no matter what I do, whether it's writing a paper or trying to hit a guy ... you know? It's give it all you got, whenever you can."

Despite his uncompromising attitude, Hickling has made many friends off the court, even among his American rivals.

"We do go out and have a drink or social after wards with the guys, but when it's on the court, it's game on!"

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