As the first woman on Canada’s national team for wheelchair rugby — also known as murderball — Paralympian Miranda Biletski never dwelled on the 2005 diving accident that left her quadriplegic. That doesn’t mean she accepts how it happened.
A three-week jury trial begins Monday for her lawsuit against the University of Regina, which she claims was negligent.
At 16, the promising competitive swimmer dove off of starting blocks into the university pool, struck her head on the pool bottom and fractured her spinal cord near the base of her neck.
‘I’ve had a pretty exceptional life thus far, and I know it … but it doesn’t change the fact that I wouldn’t wish my situation upon anyone.’ – Miranda Biletski, Paralympian
Among her allegations are that the university’s diving blocks were in an area that was too shallow, there wasn’t enough water in the pool, and that the university was prescribing to standards it should have known were unsafe.
In a statement of defence, the University of Regina denies any negligence.
Biletski took a hiatus from Canada’s rugby team to prepare for the trial.
“It’s something that’s kind of always been the elephant in the room or lurking in the background the last 12 years that I’ve been trying to move on with my life,” Biletski told CBC News.
She is seeking damages in the millions of dollars.
In its statement of defence and a third party claim, the university is blaming the accident on Biletski, her swim club — the Regina Piranhas Swim Club — and six coaches and representatives from the club.
When Biletski was just 15, her parents moved the family from their hometown of Assiniboia in southern Saskatchewan to Regina so that Biletski could access more elite coaching and facilities. She joined the Regina Piranhas Swim Club at the University of Regina.
In June 2005, Biletski, who was then 16, performed a shallow dive off a starting block at swimming practice. The pool area in question was marked 1.22 metres, according to Biletski’s lawyer, and a key point will be whether that was deep enough, taking into consideration the height of the diving blocks.
The International Swimming Federation, a world governing body for competitive swimming, requires a minimum depth of 1.35 metres below starting blocks, but Swim Canada only enforces that depth for new pools built after 2002.
Biletski broke her cervical vertebrae when her head hit the pool bottom. She says she remembers floating face down in the water, waiting for someone to turn her over, then “freaking out” on the spinal board.
“This catastrophic injury immediately rendered [Biletski] a quadriplegic, which in all probability will continue throughout her life,” her statement of claim states.
As a quadriplegic, Biletski has partial or complete paralysis in all four limbs. She has spent years undergoing gruelling therapy and training to regain enough function to compete in wheelchair rugby.
Biletski says she’s been told her “biggest weakness” is her optimism, explaining that people want to use that against her when they fail to appreciate her extraordinary needs.
Shortly after the accident, Biletski watched Murderball, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the hard-hitting sport, and became consumed with excelling on the court. She has competed on Team Canada at world competitions and the Paralympics in Rio.
“I’ve had a pretty exceptional life thus far, and I know it … but it doesn’t change the fact that I wouldn’t wish my situation upon anyone,” Biletski said.
The lawsuit seeks financial compensation for modifications to Biletski’s home, caregivers, treatment or special equipment on top of what the government has already covered.
It also seeks general damages related to pain, suffering and loss of future income.
“I know a lot of people think our government pays for adaptive equipment and things you need, but they actually don’t. It’s just about guaranteeing my independence going forward,” Biletski said.
University and swim club finger point
The university says it operated and maintained its pool facilities in line with “generally accepted and approved practices” and that Biletski was trained and experienced in shallow dives and voluntarily assumed any risk.
The University has filed its own suit against the Piranhas Swim Club to cover damages if liability is established.
The university claims the swim club entered into a contractual agreement with the university to use its pool facilities, and assumed responsibility for its swimmers, damage, or liability.
It asserts that the swim club and six representatives named in the lawsuit had a responsibility to make sure the pool facilities were safe for use by the swimmers, including assessing the water level and determining “whether the depth was sufficient to allow safe entry in the water from the diving blocks.”
In turn, the Piranhas Swim Club’s statement of defence denies that its rental contract relieved the university of any responsibility or liability. It also states that the swim club had “no ability to alter the height of the diving blocks or increase the maximum depth of the water.”