WHEN she's at her best, Janet McLachlan's defenders have the look of flummoxed children gazing upwards and hoping their ball rolls off the roof.
With a powerful frame and a high-release jump shot, the West Vancouver athlete is one of the leading lights on the Canadian women's wheelchair basketball team gunning for gold at the London Paralympics.
The team is set to tipoff against the Netherlands at 3 a.m. Saturday morning in their first tilt at the 2012 tournament.
"The group that we have here is fairly inexperienced Paralympic-wise, but we're almost the same team now as we were at the World Championships two years ago when we placed third," McLachlan says, speaking from the Paralympic village in London, England.
The team features Kendra Ohama and Tracey Ferguson, who are each slated to play in their sixth Paralympics. That veteran experience is balanced with the youthful infusion of six Paralympic rookies making their hardwood debut in London.
"We've had a lot of time this past summer to work together and to get to know one another a bit better, and our goal is to win," McLachlan says.
The 35-year-old athlete, nicknamed "Big Sexy," found herself adjusting to wheelchair basketball after a knee injury forced her off the rugby pitch.
"In stand-up basketball your brain thinks something and your body just reacts, your feet move of their own accord," she says. "Once you get in the wheelchair it's not the same thing. I found quite frequently I was trying to move my feet to get places, or I was expecting to get there without moving the wheelchair."
McLachlan was part of two University of Victoria teams that took national championships, but despite her early success, she found the wheelchair game more demanding.
The repetitive motion of the sport pushed her into the weight room in a bid to combat rotator cuff injuries and maintain muscle balance.
McLachlan's athleticism carries a price. Each player in wheelchair basketball is rated based on their upper-body mobility on a scale of 0.5 to 4.5. At any time during the game the five players on the floor cannot exceed a total score of 14.
While she said her 4.5 rating doesn't put any additional pressure on her broad shoulders, McLachlan acknowledges she's expected to score a lot during the tournament.
She largely played a supporting role in Beijing, playing about 11 minutes a game. With solid averages of eight points and five rebounds during the 2008 Paralympics, the six-footer was given significantly more responsibility in the 2010 World Championships in Birmingham, England. McLachlan played 33 minutes a game, and she made the most of her time on the court, notching 25 points and pulling down 17 rebounds a game en route to a bronze medal.
While her skills have improved, McLachlan is conscious of the strides other countries have made as well.
For three consecutive Paralympic Games the Canadian squad was a dominant force in women's wheelchair basketball, capturing gold in Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney. The team finished fifth in the Beijing Games, something McLachlan attributes to the rapid evolution of the sport.
"I think the other teams have really stepped up their training and their level of play and so the overall level of play has really increased and Canada has struggled a little bit," she says. "You look at the Americans, the European countries, just population-wise they have a much bigger pool of athletes to draw from, and then in Canada we're so spread out it makes training and finding enough athletes to make teams and to make a competitive league difficult."
Speaking to the North Shore News from her fiveroommate, three-bedroom apartment in the Paralympic Village, McLachlan is focused on her goal.
The biggest mall in Europe is just outside the village gates and McLachlan is surrounded by video games, pool tables, air hockey, and a giant version of Connect Four, but she says there isn't much free time to be had. Morning meetings tend to bridge the gap between breakfast and lunch, and practice takes up the afternoon until dinner. Between massage and physio treatments there isn't much time to take in the sights, according to McLachlan.
The team recently warmed up for the tournament with a scrimmage against Brazil.
"The Brazilians are always really intense and really fired up to play just about everybody," she says. "We don't get to see Brazil very often so it's nice to get a feel for them."
Canada is in a pool with Australia, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Brazil.
It was an opening-round loss to Australia in 2008 that pushed Canada out of medal contention.
"Our goal is a gold medal, there's no doubt about that. But I think every team here has that same goal in mind and I think the top six teams all have a shot at it," McLachlan says.