It's mid-afternoon on one of those smoking-hot Kamloops days.
The bar/restaurant is quiet. There is a couple about 12 feet away from the veteran international-calibre athlete who is about to announce her retirement. They look at her and wonder who she is, why she is wearing a t-shirt with CANADA across the chest.
She will play in one more international event and that'll be it.
Were she a member of the Canadian track and field team or the women's soccer team, there might be a news conference in a big city.
But when you're Jessica Vliegenthart, you're a veteran of five years on the national women's wheelchair basketball team, and you have been playing on national teams since 2007, you get one reporter at a table in a bar.
Never mind that she has been presented with numerous awards over the last few years, including the Terry Fox Gold Medal for showing courage in the face of adversity.
This is it.
"I'm going to retire. I've been on the road for six years so it's time," she explains with a relaxed smile.
There is one more road trip - she is in London with the Canadian women's team to play in the Paralympic Games - and then not only is she retiring, she is coming home.
Vliegenthart, whom you may remember as Jessica Des Mazes when she was a student at Kam High and a fine athlete with the Red Angels, and her husband, Jon, who is from Quesnel, are moving to Kamloops. They met at the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse, where Jessica was the only female on B.C.'s wheelchair basketball team and Jon, who is able-bodied, was a teammate. (You don't have to be disabled to play wheelchair basketball in B.C.) They were married at Little Shuswap Lake on July 1, 2009, and have been living in Victoria.
"We're too far away," Jessica explains, adding that health issues have struck recently at both their families. Having lost her father to ALS when she was six, she knows the importance of quality family time.
Earlier this day, the Vliegentharts signed a lease, so will have a place to live. Jon, who is working towards his designation as a property appraiser, also found work. The following day, Jessica accepted an offer to article with Fulton and Co., a local law firm.
Yes, she is a lawyer, having graduated from the U of Victoria in the fall.
Since then, Vliegenthart has been working towards the Paralympics, which open today in London. Oh, has she!
In January, Vliegenthart headed south to train with the U of Alabama women's team, a top-ranked squad on which there are four Canadians. She stayed until April, when it was over to Germany for three weeks of training with a team there. She came back to Canada in May to play for B.C. at the national championship tournament. In June, the national team gathered in Winnipeg. Up next was a tournament in the U.S., and then 10 days in Mexico for a series of exhibition games. Finally, it was back to Winnipeg.
"I've had two weeks at home total in the last nine months," she says. "Now I'm on my days off."
A few of the days off were spent in her hometown trying to find a place to live, a job and some downtime.
Vliegenthart's road to London began in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories border. It was Aug. 6, 2004, and she was part of a crew that was working to contain a 90,000-hectare fire.
She and her partner were patrolling a rutted road that was being used as a fire break, looking for flareups. She undid her seatbelt to reach for something, the truck fishtailed, the driver couldn't get it back, and Vliegenthart was ejected through the windshield.
In the end, she was found to have 18 broken ribs, three crushed vertebrae, a punctured lung and a severed spinal cord.
The accident occurred five days before her 21st birthday. She calls it her "crashiversary" and laughingly says she celebrates it and her birthday "all together."
As badly as she was injured, it could have been worse. The right side of the Ford F-350 was damaged so badly that she may not have survived had she been wearing her seatbelt.
Regardless, the girl who had been so active and so competitive - she played basketball and ultimate frisbee, she hiked and rode horses, she travelled - was destined for life in a wheelchair.
What was she to do? It's not like the competitive juices had left her body.
Once she got through the surgeries and the rehabilitation work, the latter at the GF Strong Centre in Vancouver, she got involved with wheelchair track and field. In the summer of 2007, she won four medals at the Canadian championships.
She also was being recruited by Marni Abbott-Peter, the head coach of the B.C. women's wheelchair basketball team. Abbott-Peter had been injured in a downhill ski racing accident in 1983 and was brought into the world of wheelchair sports by Rick Hansen.
At first, Abbott-Peter was whistling into the wind.
"I was a track athlete," Vliegenthart recalls. "I liked being outside and being on the road more than getting hammered away at in a gym."
Laughing, Vliegenthart adds: "She made it her mission that I play wheelchair basketball."
While Abbott-Peter's efforts paid off, it was hardly a case of love at first sight.
In the beginning, Vliegenthart wondered "how can anyone play this game and have fun?"
She admits now that she didn't like the contact that is so prevalent in wheelchair basketball. As she points out, "I was pretty good at wheelchair racing and I was enjoying it."
On the other hand, wheelchair basketball . . .
"It's really physical . . . full contact," says Vliegenthart, who often finds herself playing mostly with and against men. "I'm used to it now, put it that way. It took a long time. That was actually one thing that I found very hard when I started playing. The contact shocked me.
"Coming from standup basketball, where there's contact but it's not nearly at this level . . . this is more like hockey than anything else. If you have your head down and you get hit, that's your problem."
As time wore on, she got better at it and came to love it.
"It translates," she explains. "Coming from able-bodied basketball into wheelchair basketball, it translates pretty quickly. Physically, I was pretty talented early on. The finesse of the game took me a fair bit longer. But right away I was big and strong. It's super physical. And I had the basketball smarts that you can't really teach. It was a very quick transition but it was natural for me."
She made the transition quickly enough that by 2007 she was on the Canadian development team. In 2008, she was an alternate to the team that competed in the Beijing Olympics, although she didn't travel. By 2009, she was a regular on the national team.
The history of wheelchair basketball goes back to the late-1940s when the game was played mostly by disabled veterans from the Second World War. The men's game debuted in the first Paralympics in 1960 in Rome, with the women following in Tel Aviv in 1968.
In Beijing in 2008, the Canadian women lost the gold-medal game, 72-60, to Australia.
In London, the Canadian women open against the Netherlands on Friday. Teams from Australia, Brazil and Great Britain also are in their group.
"We've always been fiercely competitive with Australia," Vliegenthart says. "The Dutch, as well, have grown a lot in the past year. Those two teams are definitely going to be tough games. Even Great Britain is a competitor."
The Canadians left for Europe on Aug. 14. They went to Arnhem, Netherlands, where they played in a five-day tuneup tournament. Canada lost its last two games to the Netherlands to finish 3-2.
Vliegenthart couldn't have picked a better stage on which to end her career.
"It's going to be big. It's huge," she says of the London Games.
Canada will split its games between two facilities - the Basketball Arena, a temporary 12,000-seat venue, and the 20,000-seat North Greenwich Arena that is in the centre of the O2 entertainment complex and normally is known as The O2 arena.
"It's going to be loud," Vliegenthart says, pointing out that some training sessions in Winnipeg featured as many as five stereos with the volume cranked up. "It's overwhelming when you're used to playing with next to nobody in the stands. You can hear everything . . . and then to get into an arena where you can't hear the person four feet away from you."
The Canadians have devised hand signals and, as she says, "It's something I think we're ready for."
In the crowds will be about 20 of her friends and relatives. "They're pretty excited," she says.
Vliegenthart isn't one to beat her own drum, so you have to press her a little before she opens up about what she has accomplished since the accident.
While she was travelling and playing with the national team, she also was going to university, first at Simon Fraser in Burnaby and then at UVic.
"If I sit down and look at the chronology of everything," she finally admits, "it does feel like an awful lot. But it all felt very natural. Going to law school and competing on a national team, it was challenging but it was really good for me at the same time."
She learned how to compartmentalize; she learned time management.
"I had to work out probably two to two and a half hours a day," she explains. "It was forced balance, if you will. Some people will throw themselves 100 per cent into something like law school, and I couldn't. At first, it was almost overwhelming but once I figured it out, it was the best possible thing.
"Get up and go to the gym. Shower. Head to school. Get it done. Do some work. Go to bed. Rinse. Repeat."
At the same time, she found that there were times when basketball offered her a break from the rigours of school.
"It was really nice to be taken out of the law school environment, like to go to Japan for a tournament," she explains. "I couldn't even bring books with me because it'd be so busy. So I would get these eight- or nine-day breaks. Yeah, there was a lot of work at either end of those trips but it was good to be, like, 'I can do this.' "
When it is suggested that her accomplishments of the last eight years border on the incredible, she smiles and laughs.
"I've been a little busy," she says.
Once the Vliegentharts get settled in Kamloops, you can expect to hear more about wheelchair sports, something Jessica and Jon both have been heavily involved with in Victoria.
"I'm really ready to give back to the community," Jessica says, adding that they hope to grow and amalgamate the different sports. "It's such an awesome sports town that we could have an amazing club offering different things.
"I've got some plans that I would love to see. I know there are fantastic athletes here and we can tap into that and make a good thing happen. And we have the facilities here to do everything.
"Jon and I are pretty excited about that. We know we can get some cool things going."
She plans on getting back into wheelchair racing, as well. She still has her racing chair and, she says, "I'm super excited to get back into it."
She also is excited about the opportunity to get to know her hometown again.
"I loved growing up here," she says. "Every summer that we come back to visit family, we have the same conversation. 'Isn't it so nice? Maybe we should try to come back here.'
"But it's never really hit home until this year. In July we came up and found ourselves having that same conversation again. In that moment, we decided to come back."
She looks towards the ceiling and smiles.
"You know," she says, "Victoria has been fantastic to us and I had a job lined up for after the Paralympics. But home is home and family is pretty important."
She also is looking forward to getting into some kind of routine with her home life, just to be able to "eat dinner and go to bed . . . to sleep in my own bed." She admits openly that her husband "has put up with a lot."
"The international season is all summer long," she says, adding that when she was in school she was "totally busy" from September to April. "School would end and the season would take off and I'd be gone the whole summer. He's put up with a lot the last four years.
"I think he's ready to have his wife back."
But then her sense of humour takes hold and, laughing again, she adds: "I hope."
From a few feet away, the couple has watched the interview and wondered what's going on. Now Vliegenthart is asked what's happening. She tells them she is soon off to London. They are impressed and wish her good luck.
Vliegenthart wheels up the ramp, through the heavy doors and out into the Kamloops heat.
A new life awaits her.
But first there's this tournament in London.