CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench – July 2023
“I have really come to enjoy (coaching) – and seeing the growth by my teammates, means a great deal to me.”
By David Grossman
There were times when, like so many others, he was stuck in a rut.
Imagine having a hollow feeling, confidence had slipped, self-esteem was absent, and toss in plenty of aggravation and frustration.
That was John Azlen, in his teenage years, growing up in Windsor. Some might call it a form of depression. For Azlen, those feelings had to do with a variety of factors.
As a youngster, he had dreams of always wanting to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. But he would learn that it wasn’t going to be possible because of physical pre-requisites that Azlen would not be able to achieve.
Azlen was born with a birth defect and, at six months of age, became a double amputee above the knee.
In time, he would adjust to prosthetics. Eventually, he would make the call to give way to a wheelchair.
As a graduate of Riverside High School, Azlen then needed time to ponder his future. He chose a temporary path of factory work. It was also easy to get bogged down while losing sight of what matters most. Along with various forms of barriers, he would learn quickly that a lack of post-secondary education was not in his best interests.
Confidence was starting to kick in. He was able to see a different way of living. Then, change hit home. The days of life being empty and dull would be replaced by chosen qualities, and him focussing on his deepest desires.
Azlen had enough of feeling sorry for himself and was determined to do what was necessary to make his life better. He was beginning to understand what his new needs would be in order to build the most meaningful life possible.
“I was 27 years old, not very happy, and I needed to do something with my life,” he said in a telephone conversation from his home. “Enough of the wandering, I had to try do something positive with my life and, of all things, watching a movie gave me that extra inspiration and motivation. It was a huge turning point in my life.”
Azlen liked what he saw in the 2008 movie “Yes Man”. It was a comedy about an individual who supported the ideas and opinions of another person to try and earn that individual’s approval.
For Azlen, he figured that would be a time to say farewell to his negative feelings and replace them with a variety of positive opportunities and good things.
“The power of saying “yes” took over for me,” he said. “I returned to school and earned a diploma from St. Clair College in Business Administration and Marketing. For years, I was the guy who didn’t want to be social – but now, things would be different going forward. I’ve also always honored my commitments and I felt different.”
Robust and eager to take on a new role, Azlen examined opportunities and acted upon them.
In 2012, while at St. Clair, Azlen met John Boyko – a man passionate about wheelchair basketball. Boyko also started project called Wheel Living, later changed to the LaSalle Lightning basketball club. Fun, inclusiveness, and a positive social environment were priorities and that’s where Azlen learned to play the sport.
“I heard him talk about the sport, the club, and decided to get involved – there was accessible transit, too,” added Azlen. “But I really didn’t know much about basketball. I also knew there was a time when (Boyko) figured his time coaching was limited and in 2016 the club folded.”
Azlen got together with Rob Bahry, a former teammate, and decided the time was right to bring wheelchair basketball to Windsor.
“There was nothing around, nothing,” said Azlen. “So, as co-founders, we re-started the program in 2018 as the Rose City Riot Para Sports Club and it gave me an opportunity to learn more about the sport, coaching – while also getting an opportunity to play and have fun.”
Trying to stay humble, Azlen also felt the self-awareness really kick in. Along with it, came an urge to help others. His knowledge of coaching received a huge boost – but, he claims, only from one key organization.
“A lot of what I am doing is because the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) had a peer mentorship program that helped me a great deal while there were some professional development modules available through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP),” said Azlen.
“I have really come to enjoy (coaching) – and seeing the growth by my teammates, means a great deal to me,” he said. “Since I started coaching, I’ve made friends with coaches across the province and the recognition, from others, has meant a great deal to me along with improving my knowledge.”
No longer one who is withdrawn, miserable and discouraged, Azlen is doing something that is lacking across the country – a coach in a wheelchair.
“I really feel good about myself and very proud of what I have achieved,” he said. “I look around and there is a lack of information for people to go on-line and learn about what it’s like to coach from a wheelchair. Everything is for those who are not physically challenged.”
James Murphy is Executive Director of ParaSport Ontario – an organization that supports the disability community connect with, and participate in, competitive and recreational adaptive sport programs and activities of their choice to enhance physical function and quality of life”.
Across Canada there appears to be a limited number of people with disabilities coaching others with impairments. Same is true for Ontario with supports, resources and training being some of the key factors.
“It’s very unfortunate and the same is true for the lack of variety parasport opportunities for participants with disabilities especially outside of major population hubs in Ontario,” said Murphy.
“There are not a lot of John Azlen’s, who put in effort each day to run, coach, arrange and even play while still having to work through many barriers including locations to practice, and adaptive equipment costs – and he hasn’t waivered because he cares so passionately about what he is doing and why.”
Murphy, and others, realize that Azlen is a very dedicated person from a coaching perspective and wanting to give back as well as help (the disability community) in the Windsor area. There may come a time when even Azlen is limited in what he can to keep the basketball club functioning with these barriers in place.
Azlen has been using a rental basketball wheelchair that isn’t properly fitted for him. In need of something new, that wish came true as he was recently a recipient of the ParaSport Ontario Play to Podium Fund that awarded him a new basketball wheelchair. According to Murphy, it is valued at more than $8,000.
Through the Coaches Association of Ontario series, “Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench”, focus on individuals – like Azlen – who find opportunities to enhance the use of strong coaching fundamentals for improvement, guidance, and training.
“Since I started coaching, I’ve made friends with coaches across the province and the recognition, from others, has meant a great deal to me along with improving my knowledge.”
David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.
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