The race that Tyler Mosher has been working toward for nearly a decade has finally arrived.
Snowboarding will make its long-awaited Paralympic debut in Sochi on Friday, March 14, with Mosher being one of the threats for the men's podium.
It's the Whistler resident's second trip to the Games, only this time, he'll be competing in the sport for which he's been a world champion.
That's what makes these Paralympics "different" for Mosher compared to 2010. The 41-year-old said it was an honour to compete at home in 2010 as a para-Nordic skier, but these ones will be special in another way after tirelessly advocating for snowboarding to be a Paralympic sport.
"I wouldn't put one in front of the other, but I sure am excited seeing 10 years of hard work (produce a) sport that didn't exist," Mosher said shortly before arriving in Sochi last week. "For me to be a part of the legacy of this sport, I'm pretty proud of that."
Mosher leads a team of four Canadian snowboarders into Russia that includes 21-year-old Whistler resident John Leslie, Trail's Ian Lockey and Calgary's Michelle Salt.
Para-snowboard races are contested by individual runs on a snowboard cross course, with the riders' top two of three runs combined for a total time. Mosher, the 2009 world champion, is among the medal hopefuls in Sochi, but he's got a tougher road to the podium than most.
There is no factoring system in place for Paralympic snowboarding, meaning Mosher — an incomplete paraplegic who has regained 60 per cent mobility below the waist since a 2000 snowboarding accident — is racing against athletes with different types of disabilities, mainly amputees who have full mobility. Only athletes with lower-limb impairments are competing in snowboarding's Games debut.
"Without having a factoring system, I have to be realistic that my chances would be greater if there were one. That said, I've trained to win," said Mosher, who added that the level of riding amongst competitors has taken off since snowboarding was named a Paralympic sport in May 2012.
"Everyone has stepped up their game, including myself... It just makes every one of us have to get better."
La Molina, Spain, hosted the final IPC World Cup event before the Games last month and Mosher placed sixth in both races held there. While the rest of the team returned home, Mosher remained in La Molina, working with his technical coach and training alongside fellow medal hopefuls Carl Murphy of New Zealand and Bibian Mentel of the Netherlands. He said the extra time training in Spain was "really productive."
"I'm feeling great going into Sochi," said Mosher. "I really do think that I have a chance to win.
"If I do my best, how I do is how I do. But I'd like to come home with a medal."
LESLIE CATCHES ON QUICKLY
Leslie, who hails from Arnprior, Ont., relocated to Whistler to begin chasing his Paralympic dream. So far, it's progressed a little faster than he was anticipating.
Originally identified as a rider with podium potential for the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea, he's arrived at these Games within reach of a medal. Leslie, whose left leg was amputated below the knee due to a childhood cancer diagnosis, collected three World Cup bronze medals during races at Big White and Colorado's Copper Mountain in January.
"It's been so unexpected," Leslie said before leaving for Sochi. "I got my first podium this year, then I got my second one and a third one. I've been in the top five except for one race, so it brings on a little extra pressure because I wasn't expected to come into the Games ranked (as a medal contender).
"All I want to do is put down the best possible run I can, and hopefully that lands me on the podium. If not, well, there won't be any regrets."
At just 21, Leslie figures he has a long career ahead of him, so at worst, these Games can be a tremendous learning experience for him. In fact, since Leslie decided on becoming a Paralympic snowboarder, there's been plenty to learn already.
"I've developed from this punk-ass kid, showing up at Lake Louise with my park board and bag of Pop Tarts, and (became) an athlete — learning how to eat properly, learning to train properly, getting my rest, managing life," he said. "I'm still new to the sport... I'm not a veteran like Tyler or Ian. I still have a lot of learning to do."
Knowing that, Leslie said he's paid close attention to advice from Mosher, who has the experience of a Paralympic Games to draw from.
"Just have fun," Leslie said, recalling some of Mosher's insights to him. "That's my game plan. Obviously I'm there to race... but I'm going to have fun with the rest of it and enjoy it all."
Para-snowboard races will begin at 11 p.m. PDT on Thursday, March 13.