“There’ll be a target on my back.”
So quips Alison Levine as she prepares for the postponed 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo next month. The wheelchair athlete from Montreal is serene when talking about the pressure she will face as the defending boccia world champion in her classification.
Levine, 31, clinched the BC4 individual title two years ago on the strength of her podium appearances since her first Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016. With official competition suspended since the start of the pandemic, Levine has retained her No. 1 ranking unchallenged.
She is the first female champion in a sport that has no gender segregation. Boccia, which resembles lawn bowling but is indoors, was originally designed for those with severe cerebral palsy. Today, there is organized play in more than 50 countries. BC4 players, like Levine, have serious mobility impairments affecting the whole body, not related to CP like the other three classes.
Her calm belies a tough competitiveness, and speaks to the intense focus she is known for. “It’s always an honour representing my country, but the Paralympics are extra special,” said Levine, one of four Canadian boccia team members.
Levine will compete in both the individual and pairs events at the Games, which open Aug. 24. Her best showing in pairs was a bronze medal at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru in 2019 shared with Marco Dispaltro who is joining her in Tokyo.
An active if not athletic kid, Levine was diagnosed with idiopathic muscular dystrophy just as she was entering her teens. The Bialik High School student found sports returned some control of her body. As her abilities diminished, she moved from therapeutic horseback riding to wheelchair team sports, before being introduced to boccia by Dispaltro.
Today, she plays through weakness and spasticity affecting all her muscles.
Levine threw her first ball in December 2012. The next month she was competing provincially and, by 2014, was on the international circuit.
Since finishing fifth at Rio in singles, she has been on the ascendancy. Striking gold at the 2019 World Open in her hometown Montreal was especially sweet.
“It’s been quite a whirlwind experience, but I haven’t looked back from that first ball,” she said. “This past year so much has been taken from us that the simple act of competing again is what I’m most looking forward to.”
That and bringing home the hardware, Canada can be assured.
Making the 14-hour trip to Japan where the high incidence of COVID is overshadowing the Olympic Games does not daunt Levine. Paralympic protocols are extremely stringent, she said, and the Canadian Paralympic Committee has precautions on top of those. All participants must be fully vaccinated, tested repeatedly, and stay within bubbles.
Although foreign spectators are barred, which she will miss, Levine is going with her mother and “performance partner” Roberta Fried-Levine. Such partners are restricted to assisting competitors set up for play. They cannot interfere or even speak on the field.
Fried-Levine recently retired from nursing, after years of taking off as much time as she could to travel with her daughter to meets.
Levine’s training centre was closed for almost the entire first year of the pandemic. “We could only start full court practice last week…I was throwing a few balls in my apartment, but it’s only about four metres in length (as opposed to a 12-metre court). The first week back felt really weird but muscle memory kicked in in a lot less time than I expected.”
Levine is concerned that she may be at a disadvantage in Tokyo because in some European and Asian countries competitive play resumed six or seven months ago.
In the BC4 category there are so many variables, past performance is no guarantee of success on any given day, she pointed out.
Levine credits paralympic sport with giving her a level of autonomy she would not otherwise have. She drives an adapted van and, a few years ago, moved into her own place and lives with assistance and the support of her service dog, Ghia.
Living alone, however, and not even being allowed to have even her mother visit during the first months of the pandemic took a psychological toll.
In 2019, Levine was elected to the representative Athletes’ Council of the Canadian Paralympic Committee and speaks out for more participation and support.
“Paralympic sport requires me to push through barriers to achieve my goals. It allows me to be proud of who I am no matter how I look and gives me the courage to be the best I can be,” she said.