Danielle Ellis doesn’t remember exactly when she inherited the captaincy of Canada’s women’s sitting volleyball team — it was either 2017 or 2018.
But she knows that she felt nervous filling the shoes left behind by the previous captain, Jolan Wong.
“They probably looked like clown shoes to me, to be honest, when I started. And I think now they just fit. They’re a comfortable pair of sandals that I can just wake up and I can do the responsibilities and hopefully my team feels the same,” Ellis told CBC Sports.
Now, with plenty of reassurance in her role, Ellis, the 31-year-old from White Rock, B.C., will look to lead Canada into the 2024 Paris Paralympics when the sitting volleyball World Cup begins on Saturday in Cairo, Egypt.
Canada needs to finish first among all non-qualified nations to book its ticket to Paris. Otherwise, it must compete in a last-chance qualifier next year.
Ellis, who lost her right leg below the knee due to cancer as a newborn, was with the team from 2009 to 2012 before taking a hiatus until 2015.
Since Ellis’ return, Canada’s women reached their first Paralympics in 2016 and finished seventh, improved to fourth at the 2021 Games and won silver at the 2022 world championships.
Medal would be ‘beautiful moment’
The team’s ascendancy is undeniable — and the next step is the Paralympic podium.
“Every single person on this team has been working so hard for that gold medal at the Paralympics. Fourth wasn’t quite enough in Tokyo. And so I think every single person on this team wants it so bad, and that’s what’s really made us better,” Ellis said.
Ellis’ journey in the sport, however, hasn’t been as simple as the team’s recent upwards trajectory.
She was part of the squad that missed qualifying for London 2012 — considered by some the pinnacle Paralympics — and put the sport aside for three years after to pursue a career as a paramedic.
Now, 14 years after first joining the team, Ellis said that a Paralympic medal would mark a “beautiful moment in time.”
“Every single day that I woke up and I had a plain bagel and cream cheese and some egg whites for breakfast and some plain chicken and broccoli for dinner — that was what got me there. And so that’s exciting. Like, it’s like every single thing that I did every single day. Every single moment led to this one thing that I’ve been working so hard for,” she said.
Ellis came back to the team a year after it hired head coach Nicole Ban of Fort McMurray, Alta., who has also been crucial to the team’s rise.
Heidi Peters, another team veteran, told the Canadian Paralympic Committee in September that Ban “demands excellence.”
“But she knows that we can do it,” Peters said. “All of our team are just such strong individual female athletes. We are not afraid to use our voices, not afraid to take up space, and she just never backs down from anybody.”
Meanwhile, Ellis, Peters and Wong — who transitioned to the role of libero — form the player leadership group.
Ellis called it a unique setup, but one that works for Team Canada.
“It’s really been a group effort for everything no matter what we’re doing, if it’s picking a colour of the shirt for the day or bigger things like making packing lists or being on the court and talking to the other athletes and seeing what needs to be done,” Ellis said.
She added that her goals as captain have changed since first taking over the job.
“I just want to be a pillar for the team. I want to be someone that you know can hold you accountable and be accountable to what you want and what you need,” she said.
And ultimately, she hopes to guide the team to the top of the Paralympic podium.
“It would just be a dream come true,” she said. “But it’s closer than a dream.”