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Paralympics are Canada’s best ever

Woolstencroft wins five gold medals, McKeevers three

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Canada's first Paralympics produced Canada's best result ever, with the team netting 19 medals, including 10 gold. As a result, Canada met its goal of placing third in the overall medal count, behind Russia with 38 medals and Germany with 24.

In comparison, the Canadians netted just 13 medals in 2006 and 15 in 2002, ranking sixth both times. In Nagano, Canada was 15 th in the medal count.

But while Canada came into the Paralympics with a strong team, a handful of athletes were responsible for most of the glory.

Lauren Woolstencroft won a world record five gold medals in the women's standing alpine events, all of them won by sizable margins. Although she has been the top racer in the world since the 2006 Paralympics, she had never dominated quite like this.

Visually impaired cross-country skier Brian McKeever and his brother/guide Robin added three gold medals to the team tally.

Viviane Forest of Edmonton, a visually impaired alpine skier, and Lindsay Debou, her Whistler-based guide, also earned five medals during the Games, including a gold medal in the downhill.

Karolina Wisniewska earned two medals in the women's standing alpine events, while cross-country sit-skier Colette Bourgonje earned two medals of her own. Sit skier Josh Dueck added one medal in the slalom, while Canada's wheelchair curling team went undefeated to take gold.

There were disappointments as well. The Canadian sledge hockey team finished without a medal after setting out to complete a sweep of all of the Olympic and Paralympic hockey gold medals.

Visually impaired skier Chris Williamson, who rarely finishes off the podium for more than two events in a row, was shut out this year. He was on pace to win gold in the downhill, but hit Hot Air - the bottom air on the Franz's Run course - with so much speed he flew 20 metres through the air and misjudged the landing.

Sit skier Kimberly Joines broke her leg two weeks before the start of the Paralympics and didn't compete in a single event. She was favoured to win at least two medals in the speed competitions.

One thing was clear during the Paralympic Games: Canada needs a little more depth in some events. For example, when Joines was injured there were no other Canadians in the women's sit ski competition, putting five medals out of reach of the team.

Canada only had one entry in several alpine disciplines, men's and women's visually impaired and women's sit-ski. In cross-country or biathlon there were only a handful of categories where Canada fielded more than one athlete, while Russia had at least two athletes in every group and usually four. All of Russia's 38 medals were earned in the Nordic sports.

Many of the Canadian athletes said they hoped the Games would serve as a recruiting tool, inspiring more young disabled athletes to get involved in winter sports.

"I've been getting e-mails from parents of blind kids saying 'you guys are inspiring and I know now that my kids can go far and succeed in sports,'" said Viviane Forest. "I totally believe it will make a difference. Now everyone has seen the Games and know that we exist, and that we're pretty good."

Canadians can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing, or understanding, what the Paralympics mean. In both 1976 and 1988 Canada passed on hosting the Paralympics for various reasons, which made the 2010 Games a first for the country. As well, media has never covered the Paralympics to the extent they did, with more hours of television broadcasting than any previous Paralympic Games - including some live events.

 

Alpine Roundup

Despite some delays and cancelled training runs at the start of the Games the organizers and track crew managed to pack in all five alpine disciplines in just eight days.

All told, Canadian athletes won 13 medals in alpine, with Lauren Woolstencroft and the team of Viviane Forest and Lindsay Debou winning five medals each.

As reported last week, the first event was the slalom after organizers decided to delay the speed events until later in the week to take advantage of clearing skies. Canada won four medals in the slalom with Viviane Forest and guide Lindsay Debou placing second in the women's visually impaired category. Josh Dueck, better known for speed events, also earned a silver medal after two solid runs on the technical course - his best result ever in a slalom event. The following day Lauren Woolstencroft won her first gold of the Games in the women's standing category, while teammate Karolina Wisniewska claimed the bronze.

That set up the giant slalom on Tuesday and Wednesday, which took place in the worst conditions - rain, snow, fog and wind.

Despite pulling her groin at a training camp a few weeks prior to the Paralympics, Forest hung in behind guide Debou to win the bronze medal in the GS.

"This medal feels like gold for me and I'm so happy with what I did today," she said.

Her teammates had a tougher day. Chris Williamson and guide Nick Brush finished fourth, less than half a second off the podium.

The weather was slightly better the next day for the standing categories. Woolstencroft finished two runs with a seven second gap over Germany's Andrea Rothfuss. Petra Smarzova of the Slovakian team picked up the bronze. Wisniewska placed fourth, Arly Fogarty 11 th and Melanie Schwartz 12 th .

No Canadians took  part in the men's sitting category.

The standing men struggled with Jeff Dickson 18 th , Morgan Perrin 21 st and Kirk Schornstein 25 th .

That set up Thursday's downhill, which took place under sunny skies with near-perfect racing conditions.

Still, it was a tough day for many racers. Whistler's Sam Danniels went off course and crashed through the safety netting - a disappointing finish after leading the pack in the only training run held eight days earlier. It was par for the course, as 13 of the 28 racers crashed, 11 of them were not able to finish the event.

Josh Dueck, who won on the Franz's Run course last year, placed a solid fifth, but was disappointed that he didn't take a few more risks.

"It was pretty gnarly, so a tip of my hat to the guys that challenged the hill today and got onto the podium," he said. "The tough part is we haven't skied this course in a week and it was a challenge to trust the snow. That's where I came up a bit short. I wasn't willing to trust the conditions to really push it.

"Truthfully I've only been doing this for a couple of years, so at the end of the day I have to be happy where I'm at and take today and learn from it."

Matt Hallat, who lives in Squamish, was the top Canadian in the men's standing race, placing 11 th . While he hoped for more, all of the crashes on course earlier in the day resulted in huge delays. He didn't ski until 3:20 in the afternoon after uploading at 11 a.m.

Still, Hallat took the result as a sign that he is moving up the ranks in a very difficult and competitive category.

"I feel I'm making progress," he said. "In Torino my best finish was 31 st and I finished (11 th ) today. I finished ranked seventh overall in the World Cup in slalom (despite missing the final event), and I'm a seed now in downhill. It's that last step that's killing me, from finishing seventh to 10 th to first to fifth."

The topic of classification - the method by which the International Paralympic Committee levels the playing field between disabled athletes by adjusting times - came up repeatedly during the Winter Games. Hallat says the system is generally fair for his category but doesn't take into account conditions. For example, he is missing one leg below the knee and has chosen to compete as a mono skier on one ski while others in his category may be missing arms or using prosthetics. Those skiers can have an advantage when a course is soft and rough.

"When the snow stays hard for the entire field it's pretty fair, but when it gets soft it changes everything," he said. "The big guys really power the course but when it's soft they can't power it the same way, while it might help the other guys with weaker legs because they can hold their edges more."

Morgan Perrin was 15 th while Josh Dickson was a DNF.

In visually impaired, Forest and Debou had a solid run from start to finish, although Forest fell in the finish area after catching an edge.

"My goal is to have one gold and podium five times, and to get that gold in the downhill means so much because it's such a difficult course here," said Forest.

As a visually impaired athlete the only thing she could see on the way down was Debou's yellow bib, although the two skiers are in constant communication by two-way radio.

Still, the two skiers felt comfortable at speeds over 100 km/h, despite the lack of training runs.

"For our preparation we did a lot of visualization last night," explained Debou. "We looked through our videos, through other people's videos, we've gone through it in our minds, so basically it's like we skied it 300 times. We went through it together in the morning, and we're actually in our tucks pretending we're skiing the course in real time."

"I dream about that course all night long," added Forest. "I raced it so many times in my head, and Lindsay knows that hill so well that even when it's foggy she knows where she's going."

Woolstencroft won the women's standing event by four and a half seconds, earning her first Paralympic medal in the discipline.

"I was fourth in Torino, I crashed in Salt Lake so it's nice to get one," she said.

While she made it look easy, she assured reporters that it was anything but.

"It was eight days since our downhill training so I had to dust off my memory of the course," she said. "We've been skiing tech events in slush, so it was a little different feeling going out there with all that speed.

"I thought it was pretty bumpy myself, but the course was really well prepared and I think the course workers did an awesome job and the course actually held up well."

Teammate Karolina Wisniewska had to rerun the course after being flagged down past the halfway point. Teammate Andrea Dziewior crashed in the finish area and was taken away on a stretcher. Wisniewska headed back up to the top to try again. While her second run was better than the first she did tire out before the bottom and dropped off the podium into fifth place. Dziewior was ninth.

In men's visually impaired Chris Williamson and Nick Brush were on pace to win gold, but ended up as a DNF. Williamson crashed after getting too much hang time on the final jump.

"It's been a while since we did a training run and the snow was much faster today than it was eight days ago," said Williamson. "We just went off Hot Air with a little more speed than we had in the past. Because I'm visually impaired I can't see the landing. I opened up when I thought I should open up but for all the extra distance we got it was just too early and I landed back a bit on my tails and couldn't control it."

With no break the athletes were back in action Friday in the super G.

Williamson and Brush placed sixth in the visually impaired group, which was their most disappointing result after winning the world championship super G last year. Forest and Debou earned the silver medal, well back of Slovakian racer Henrieta Farkasova (who earned three gold medals and a silver during the Games).

Jeff Dickson and Matt Hallat were 16 th and 18 th in the men's standing category, while Morgan Perrin placed 20 th and Kirk Schornstein 26 th .

Woolstencroft was perfect once again, this time winning the women's standing category by over five seconds. Wisniewska placed seventh and Melanie Schwartz 14 th .

Josh Dueck led the team in the men's sitting category in 13 th position.

The last event was the super combined.

As expected, Woolstencroft earned her fifth gold medal, this time by an incredible 12 seconds. Rather than play it safe in her second run with seven seconds of breathing room after the opening super G run, Woolstencroft charged the slalom course to extend her lead even further.

"I'm a competitor and I always want to race my best," explained Woolstencroft. "It's a difficult course so you have to be super-focused. I think I skied a smart run, and I'm happy but surprised with the time gap."

The fact that she's earned a place in the Paralympic record books had not set in for Woolstencroft, but she said she entered the Games prepared and well-rested.

"I had the potential, but you never know what's going to happen," she said. "(Record books) were never my target, I'm not a big record person. It's always about me and pushing myself and being competitive, but to be behind those athletes (wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc and swimmer Stephanie Dixon) is an accomplishment."

Two spots back, Karolina Wisniewska earned her second bronze medal of the Paralympic Games.

"I didn't really have high expectations, but when I had a great run in super G I was like, 'okay, there's a chance,' and that got me nervous," she said, smiling ear to ear. "I didn't think (my slalom run) was that great, it was bumpy and didn't feel great but sometimes those are the best runs."

Melanie Schwartz was 10 th in the women's standing category.

Forest and Debou picked up the silver medal, again behind Hentrieta Farkasova of Slovakia.

Forest said they were aiming for gold, but she was happy to have met her goal of five medals.

"I'm pretty exhausted (after four days of racing). We had to dig pretty deep in the super G this morning and we tried hard in the slalom and never gave up at all," she said. "I don't really have the words right now."

Forest announced her goal of five podiums before her training injury and was relieved that she could still ski at a high level.

"When I injured myself in training camp it started to play with my brain, I wasn't sure I'd be able to perform. I'm so happy with what I was able to accomplish."

Forest now has five Winter Paralympic medals to go with her two summer Paralympic silver medals for goal ball, a visually-impaired team sport.

It was a tough day for the other racers. None of the Canadian men qualified for a second run in the standing category, while Josh Dueck went off course in the slalom.

 

Cross-Country Roundup

The Canadian cross-country team earned five medals, including three gold medals by visually impaired skier Brian McKeever and his brother/guide Robin.

It was an amazing and dominating performance from the pair, who weren't afraid to take a few chances on their way to the podium.

"That's what we were hoping for coming in, we've never won three medals before so that was a big goal for us," said Brian McKeever. "We definitely wanted it, but they were hard days because we came into the Games sick. But we had a lot of fun and it worked out perfectly."

According to McKeever the 20 km free event was the best team effort for the brothers. They finished the course over 40 seconds ahead of their closest competitor. The 10 km classic was tougher, said McKeever.

"It was just the hardest for me personally, I was just trying to keep up to Robin who was so much better than me that day." They finished almost a minute and a half faster than their closest competitors.

The last event of the Paralympic Games were the sprints, following a hilly 1.2 km course around the stadium of Whistler Olympic Park. For Brian, who passed his brother at the halfway point, it was all about tactics. They went all-out in the qualifier, then went a little slower in the semi-finals to win the heat by a ski length - saving their energy for the finals. There, they made the unusual decision for Brian to wear skate skis instead of classic skis and double-pole the entire course.

"It was a good, tough race and we had a good strategy and played our cards the way we wanted to today," he said.

"It was a little bit about the conditions and a little bit about the course because there's so much fast high-speed downhill on the second part of the course and all the flat at the end. If you're even within a few seconds (of the leader) up top you're going to make it up on the downhill, and that's exactly what we saw."

Because of the classification system the McKeevers started 29 seconds back of the first skiers, a huge gap to make up over a short course. However, they had closed in on the leaders by the high point in the course, dodged the Russian skier after a crash and then tucked down the last descent to glide into the lead before the flats. After that Brian McKeever pulled ahead, while Robin tried to stay out of the way of the other racers.

They got separated on the top of the course when they wound up in different lanes, and Brian said his lane was obviously faster than Robin's.

While Brian McKeever has Stargardt's Disease and about 10 per cent of normal vision, he could see the course well enough to know where he needed to be at all times.

The other Canadian cross-country skier on the podium was Colette Bourgonje, a 48-year-old veteran of both summer and winter Paralympic Games (her ninth) who won a surprise silver medal in the women's 10 km sitting race and a bronze in the 5 km sitting.

In the men's standing category, Mark Arendz had a solid week with a 12 th place finish in the 10 km classic and a ninth place finish in the sprints - missing the finals by a fraction of a second.

Whistler's Tyler Mosher was 23 rd in the 10 km race and 21 st in the sprint. While he was disappointed not to do better, he took some consolation in the fact that he made the Games - something that was not assured a year ago - and that he beat some of the athletes who usually finished ahead of him.

"It's pretty unbelievable to race in an event like this where the top guys can compete with the top guys in able-bodied," said Mosher.

"It was so hard to get here, losing weight, getting in shape. I just don't have the right disability for it or the percentage."

While Mosher is classified as an "incomplete paraplegic" and has limited mobility below the waist, the unique nature of his injury means that he competes in the standing category against people who have full or partial mobility. While the classification system does attempt to compensate, Mosher says in the end it's like "comparing fruits in a bowl versus apples to apples."

Years of training to get to the Paralympics instilled in Mosher a huge respect for Paralympic cross-country skiing.

"What a journey. It took seven years to get here, and to me that's gold in itself," he said. "Cross-country skiing is so difficult. It might have been easier (to make the Paralympics) in a another sport, but I took up cross-country because it was a major challenge, and to be honest I didn't really think I'd even make it - but I did okay and beat a lot of guys that usually beat me.

"Some of these guys were on their junior national teams and have grown up skiing, and they're really good," Mosher added. "It's kind of like me with snowboarding. I'm actually pretty disabled to be snowboarding, but because I'd done it before - and with my coaching and the classification system - I'm pretty hard to beat right now."

While Mosher is shifting his focus to adaptive snowboarding where he's the current world champion - the sport is currently being considered for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia - he says he will continue to cross-country ski, and plans to enter three Birkebeiner ski marathons next season.

"I've really come to enjoy the sport and the fitness is awesome, and I like racing," he said.

When asked if he thought he did everything he could to compete at the Paralympic level, Mosher said it was a tough progression just to get to the Games.

"I'm not a supported athlete, I have to work. I'm in adaptive snowboarding so I have to balance the two sports and life. I have mortgages. It's not like I'm 19 and just cross-country skiing. So no, I didn't do everything I could do. But given what I had and the balance I was able to bring to my life I did better than expected."

There were a few results of note in the cross-country events. Visually impaired cross-country skier Verena Bentele of Germany won three gold medals in the cross-country events and two gold medals in biathlon. Irek Zarpiov of Russia won two gold medals and a silver in cross-country, plus two gold medals in biathlon.

 

Biathlon

Canada did not win any medals in biathlon this year and only a few athletes took part. Jody Barber, Mark Arendz and the McKeevers competed for Canada, with no top-five finishes.

Almost all of the biathlon medals went to Russia (16) and the Ukraine (10).

 

 

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