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Paralympics offer legacies to athletes, sport and community

Spin-offs include tourism and year-round athlete development



In many ways sit skier Rob Gosse is the new face of disabled sport in Canada.

A strong self-advocate, well educated and well spoken, he is training to compete at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi. And thanks to the legacies in place from hosting the 2010 Paralympics, which mark their one-year countdown to Games time today (March 12), his dream is that much closer to reality.

A permanent and affordable accessible training and housing facility now exists in Whistler at the athletes' village, the facilities at the alpine and nordic venues are accessible, and so is the resort. It is hoped Whistler will become a training ground for summer and winter disabled sport.

"There are definitely going to be a lot of athletes coming here to train pre, during, and post-Games as there is a lot more awareness about what is on offer," said Gosse, who as a youth competed provincially in gymnastics.

From Whistler's perspective, embracing inclusivity did not happen by accident. It has long been on the resort's horizon but the Paralympics have acted like a catalyst and now many of the long-term legacies of the Games are already visible.

At every staircase there is a sign offering an alternate route for those with mobility challenges. This summer will see stairs and railings painted with strong colours to help the visually impaired. There has been an on-going awareness campaign in the local media to keep issues front and centre. The municipality has created a barrier-free route map, and major renovations have taken place at the Pan Pacific transit exchange and the breezeway taxi loop to make them accessible entrances.

Gosse hopes to train six months of the year in Whistler.

He is, in many respects, the living legacy of the 2010 Paralympic Games.

He is the first to admit that before a motor vehicle accident left him a paraplegic in 2006 the Paralympics and disabled sport were not on the radar.

But now: "I do my part to try and raise awareness," said the 35-year-old married father of two.

"When people ask me what I do with my time and I tell them I ski they look at me sideways and say, 'What are you talking about?'

"I challenge people to come out and ride a sit ski, see what it takes to ride, if you think it looks easy come on out and try it."

Many of his days begin at 3:30 a.m. at the gym so that he can be at school by 8:30 a.m. A former business owner he is now studying to be a rehabilitation assistant and coaches sit skiing for the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, itself a recent success story growing from giving 50 lessons in 1999 to 1,300 lessons this year.

As the years have turned into months before the Paralympic Games come to town the focus on raising awareness around inclusivity in today's society has never been lost.

"What we would like is that that message is spread," said Xavier Gonzales, CEO of the International Paralympic Committee from the organization's headquarters in Bonn, Germany.

"We need to show that people with a disability can be part of society at equal levels everywhere in the world. (And) Canada is a model of what can be done on a daily basis."

A big part of getting that message out there is getting people to attend the Games, which run March 12 to 21 next year, bringing 1,350 Paralympic Games athletes and officials from more than 40 countries.

The 200,000 tickets for the Paralympics will go on sale May 6 and are priced under $100, with many individual sport competition tickets priced between $10 and $15.

This year the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games (VANOC) targeted schools as a way to raise the profile and help prepare people for ticket sales.

"We are hoping the kids would go home and share it with the family and that would help raise awareness of the Paralympics," said Dena Coward, VANOC's director of Paralympic Games planning.

Over 15,000 B.C. students have met para-athletes and learned about disabled sport in the last year.

Whistler will host the alpine and nordic sports events while Vancouver will host wheelchair curling and ice sledge hockey. The opening ceremonies will be held in B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver and Whistler will host the closing ceremonies at Celebration Plaza.

The IPC will be looking at transportation plans and the plans for the celebrations as a way to bridge the Sea to Sky divide.

There have been discussions about the importance of scheduling events so that spectators and others can travel between Whistler and Vancouver at decent hours. And big screen broadcasts of events can also keep each venue up-to-date with what is going on at the others, making the Games feel whole.

The one-year countdown also falls during a Paralympic test event, the IPC Alpine World Cup, which runs March 9 through 14 on Whistler Mountain. Other test events have already been held and judged successful, said Gonzales.

"From our side we are very satisfied at how things are going and we are looking forward to this month, which is very busy with Paralympic activities," he said.

"When we come back from (meetings with) the Coordination Commission (end of March) we will be able to evaluate and resolve anything that may need to be tweaked..."

By the end of the month the IPC wants most outstanding issues to be on the table.

"Now things are starting to move very, very fast," said Gonzales.

"We want everything done so that VANOC can focus on the operational aspects of the Games but never forget the Paralympics and have all the basics in place."

VANOC has already learned some lessons from test events in wheelchair curling and ice sledge hockey. For example, more wheelchair accessible seating is needed on buses. And in sledge hockey, the innovative design allowing athletes to skate into a team bench or penalty box and watch through Plexiglas was hailed a great success.

Following the events at the wheelchair curling venue VANOC has developed additional ideas to improve accessibility in time for the Games, including the addition of more than a dozen accessible washrooms, more than tripling the accessible seating capacity and providing accessible shuttle service to and from nearby Translink and SkyTrain stops.

The events weren't just an operational success; Canada's teams won gold in both.

Indeed many of Canada's disabled athletes are taking the international stage by storm, another legacy of the 2010 Paralympics, said Blair McIntosh Chef de Mission of the 2010 Games for the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

"We are extremely pleased about how all of our teams are performing and there has been so much assistance from the Own the Podium program and it has helped us get to this stage and I just think over the next stage it will get so much better," he said.

The CPC's budget is $2.5 million: 50 per cent comes from the federal government and 50 per cent from sponsorship and donations. Since Vancouver was awarded the Games in 2004, the CPC's budget has doubled. Own the Podium 2010 gets $55 million in funding from the federal government to help athletes prepare for the Games.

During that period federal government funding to CPC member organizations for both winter and summer sports has increased from about $4 million per year to $16 million per year.  Paralympic sport national team athletes (winter & summer) participating in the federal government's Athlete Assistance Program has increased from about 50 to 220.  

Of the $22 million per year in the Own the Podium winter sport program, Canada's four Paralympic sports receive $3.6 million for their national team programs, and indirectly benefit from the $7 million Top Secret Program, as well as funding to Canadian Sport Centers and other Own the Podium projects. The CPC itself receives no money from Own the Podium. We are a "Funding Partner," contributing $150K per year.

"What it has really been able to do is help with the additional coaching, the better equipment, the additional training camps, the opportunity for our teams to get together more often, better medical care, sports science, massage and strength conditioning, and all of that stuff that they really might normally get minimal access too, they are now able to take full advantage of," said McIntosh.

"They are going to see a return on their investment that is quite substantial."

He also sees the success of the athletes as a way to raise awareness.

"One of our goals within CPC, and within every province and territory, is to make sure that we maintain the momentum after the Games are over because it will be at its highest level and it will be at its peak and if we want to continue to create that awareness then we have to have a program in place to continue it," he said.

Meetings will be held this month between VANOC and the IPC during official visits where issues such as accommodation, accreditation and the transition from the Olympics to Paralympics will be discussed.

Last year there were fears that the IPC and the national Paralympic organizations would have to locate to Vancouver due to the expense of staying in Whistler in March, traditionally one of the busiest times as it coincides with spring break. But places to stay have been found in both Whistler and Vancouver and affordable accommodation will be offered to the media in the community surrounding the athletes' village.

Getting the message out through the media is an important aspect of the Paralympics push for global inclusivity.

With a world-wide economic recession settling in many media outlets are cutting back on spending, but so far, said Gonzales, there has been no indication that fewer media will attend the Paralympics.

"It is always a challenge in regular Games to get media to come," said Gonzales. "But we have seen an incredible increase of the interest and I have not heard anything in the discussions with broadcasters that will be coming about that specific issue."

The media have an important role to play, as they will help tell the story of Whistler as an accessible destination.

People with disabilities, in North America alone, spend more than $13 billion each year on travel, and it is one of the fastest growing tourism market opportunities.

As visitors learn more about how accessible Whistler is more of them are booking vacations here. And as more athletes learn about the resort the more likely it is they will come here to train and live.

"By being able to offer accommodation, as well as programming, as well as training space, all of a sudden Whistler is able to attract athletes at a greater level and that is right from the grass roots to the top of the podium," said Chelsey Walker, executive director of the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program. (WASP).

"It blows the athletes away to be able to have a full package in one community."

Walker believes Whistler can expand to offer training for summer athletes too. The Valley Trail is perfect for hand-cyclers, and the lakes are ideal for sailing and rowing.

WASP has just hired its first summer programs coordinator, a reflection of this growing reality, and is itself becoming an object of observation as others look at it as a model for their communities.

It also gives the organization a chance to get new funding.

"The focus and the attention on Whistler... definitely puts a program like ours in a unique position because we do have the ability to draw funding in, given that it is now only a year before the Games," said Walker.

"So what we have to do now is leverage the funds or make sure that these funds stay behind.

"The attention on para-sport is also great and we are trying to get as many people as possible exposed to it because once they are exposed to it then they will embrace it in a significant way and then I think funding will come more easily."

For Whistler the legacy of the Paralympics, at this one-year milestone, already seems set.

"...Everyone who is anyone in para-sport is going to be coming to Whistler between now and March 21, 2010 so we are definitely looking at ways to meet all these individuals to make sure they know what is happening here in Whistler," said Walker.

"This next year we are in a unique position because the world is coming to visit us. It is our time to market our programs, to showcase the programs and the innovative quality that we have built here.

"Every part of Whistler incorporated truly believes that Para-Games are something that we can make a significant impact with and have a Whistler stamp on and use to promote accessible tourism and adaptive programming, which differentiates us from other areas.

"Whistler has (built) an amazing environment and as a community it completely embraces individuals with a disability. It is part of our community fabric and that is the story."

The countdown will be marked with celebrations across the country. Here in Whistler the traditional countdown cake will be cut at Creekside plaza during a party from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. today celebrating one year to go and the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup final awards ceremony. Sumi, the 2010 Paralympic Mascot will be there and A Whole Lotta Led will play at Dusty's. Celebrations will also be held in Vancouver and Ottawa.

On March 14 wrap up the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup Finals in style at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Mix and mingle with the athletes, enjoy
the sounds of The Paperboys and help raise funds for the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program. Tickets are $25 for accredited athletes and officials, $55 for public (with $30 tax receipt).  Tickets are available at www.whistleradaptive.com by clicking on 'store' or calling 604-905-4493.

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