Saoud Messaoudi’s gold medal victory as a teenager during the 2016 Défi sportif AlterGo still hangs prominently on his wall.
Since then, he’s developed an appetite for winning, and it didn’t matter what sport he competed in.
“I really caught that bug thanks to the Défi sportif and thanks to that gold medal,” said Messaoudi, who is now 21. “I just chased that feeling again and I wanted to do everything.”
Messaoudi won gold in swimming during that event and it was his first taste of para-sport competition. He was also exposed to dozens of other adapted sports including para-hockey. Seven years later, he’s now on the cusp of representing Canada on the ice at the Milano-Cortina Paralympic Games in 2026.
“[Participating in 2016] was such a big self-confidence boost,” said Messaoudi who is back at this year’s Défi sportif AlterGo — the event’s 40th edition — as an event ambassador.
“My first Défi sportif, I saw the other ambassadors living their life, being really successful, whether it be in sports or school or work or with their families and just seeing that just really told me that it was possible to be fully independent, fully autonomous as a disabled person in Canada.”
Soccer lover becomes elite para-hockey player
Messaoudi and his family immigrated from Casablanca, Morocco when he was 10 years old.
He was born with spina bifida and the condition led to the amputation of his left leg. His parents worried about what life would be like for their disabled son in Africa and decided to make the move to Canada.
“I’ve overcome a lot of challenges ever since I was a kid and I think I just got in that habit of, I see a challenge and then I overcome it,” Messaoudi said.
Messaoudi said he grew up watching and loving soccer and when he discovered para-hockey as a teenager it jumped out to him as a sport that could scratch that itch.
“Para-hockey is the closest thing I can get to [soccer] with the speed and puck control and shooting. So I really enjoy the sport,” he said.
He also enjoyed swimming, but didn’t like the fact that it was an individual sport.
“A team sport, that’s really what I needed. Swimming is an individual sport so it can really get intense mentally,” Messaoudi said.
[With] a team sport, when you get into the room just before a game, you have 17, 18, 19 players that really feel the same thing as you so you really feel that collective feeling of ‘we are going to get through this together.”
The learning curve for para-hockey can be steep yet the head coach of Team Quebec, Maxime Gagnon, said Messaoudi was a natural as soon as he got his sled on the ice.
This year, he was among eight players recruited from Team Quebec into Canada’s national team development system.
“Our program in Quebec is awesome for now and I think that we’re the province to beat for the next four years,” Gagnon said
Quebec has a new five team para-hockey league with 150 players provincewide. There are also plans to expand the league to include more teams next season.
Canada to take on USA at the Défi sportif
Since joining the national program, Messaoudi has played for Canada at a tournament in the Czech Republic, also known as Czechia. He was part of the extended roster for the 2022 Para Hockey Cup in Bridgewater, N.S.
“I really really am proud to represent Canada in whatever competition. Just to wear the Maple Leaf is a huge feeling for me,” Messaoudi said.
He will get another chance to wear Canada’s colours when the development team takes on the U.S. at the Défi sportif at the end of April.
Gagnon, who is also the CEO of the Défi sportif AlterGo, said the fact that Messaoudi will play in that game is a full circle moment.
“To see kids give the high five or [ask] can you sign the autograph from Saoud, that’s gonna be awesome and for the kids to say ‘hey, I practice with that guy, I know him’ That’s gonna be awesome,” Gagnon said.
Messaoudi still has work to do before he earns a spot on Canada’s roster for Milano-Cortina in 2026 but a good performance against the Americans would help cement it.
Défi sportif AlterGo takes place in Montreal from April 21 to 30.