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Paralympians prepare for Athens

High hopes for experienced, proven team

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While Canada is still coming to grips with a disappointing Summer Olympics, the Canadian Paralympic team is quietly heading to Athens to compete in 13 different sports and dozens of events.

And while the Olympic team only hoped to match its 2000 tally of 14 medals, the 144-member Paralympic athletes have much bigger expectations to live up to – a record 96 medals in the Sydney Games to finish fourth in the standings behind Australia, Great Britain and Spain.

The team doesn’t know if they can match that medal haul, but with more than two-thirds of the athletes returning from the previous Games and strong contenders in several events, officials believe the Canadian Paralympic team can win approximately 75 medals.

"I think it’s a realistic figure and if we do achieve that I think we should be in the top five," said Louis Barbeau, Canada’s chef de mission.

The Paralympics, which run from Sept. 17 to Sept. 30, are a huge deal, with some 4,000 athletes representing a record 146 countries this year.

Not only is there more competition this year, the U.S. team, which was fifth in 2000, is better prepared than in the past. China, which is preparing to host the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, has also invested heavily in all of its athletes recently, and could make a strong impact in the Paralympics as well.

The Paralympic athletes will also face many of the same challenges as the Olympians, with temperatures in Athens well above 30 degrees Celsius. The indoor venues are air conditioned but the athletes in Athletics, the largest collection of events, will be outside most of the time.

That’s why most of the athletes left for Athens on Thursday, hoping to acclimatize to the heat in time for the Games.

Although Canada has medal hopefuls in a wide range of sports, there are a few personalities to watch.

One is Calgary’s Earle Connor, a Nike-sponsored track and field star who has set the 100-metre, 200-metre and 400 metre outdoor records with a prosthetic leg. He won a gold in the 100 metres in Sydney, and a silver in the 200 metres.

His record time in the 100? Try 12.14 seconds, which smashed his own previous world record time of 12.56 seconds.

Another name you’re already aware of is Chantal Petitclerc of Montreal, who won the women’s 800-metre wheelchair event during the Olympics. It was a demonstration event in the Olympics this year, and by 2008 International Olympic Committee officials hope to incorporate it into the regular Summer Games.

Jared Funk will also attract some attention as one of the biggest players in the sport of wheelchair rugby. The U.S. is the defending Olympic champion in the sport, but Canada has beaten the American team in its last three matches, as well as top rated teams from New Zealand and Australia.

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