Travel

From Sochi With Love

Paralympic athletes triumph in a troubled world
  • Feb 28, 2014
  • 559 words
  • 3 minutes
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By the time the 2014 Winter Paralympics opened in Sochi, Russia, on March 7, the political tension between Russian president Vladimir Putin and much of the rest of the world over Russia’s military invasion of Ukrainian territory had reached a whole new level. Thus, the opening ceremony featured one lone Ukrainian, biathlete Mykhaylo Tkachenko, who entered the arena with Ukraine’s unmistakable blue and yellow flag affixed to his wheelchair.

Despite the stress surrounding their homeland, Ukraine’s 23-member team fought bravely for its 25 medals, placing second after the hosting giant’s lop-sided capture of 80, 30 of which were gold. Ukraine’s victories were roundly celebrated across Canada by 1.2 million Ukrainian Canadians. Canada hung in as well against the titan Russia, earning 16 medals, fourth in the overall standings, while meeting our goal of placing third in the gold count with seven medals.

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Three of those golds went to one of the country’s best-loved athletes and now our most decorated winter Paralympian, Albertan Brian McKeever. McKeever, a cross-country skier who was diagnosed with macular degeneration at 19, duplicated his 2010 success in Vancouver by ferociously fighting for top honours in the 20 km, 10 km and 1 km sprint. Gracious as always, McKeever credited his wins to the dedicated teamwork of his two hard-skiing guides Erik Carleton and Graham Nishikawa.

While the pressure was on the men’s sledge hockey team to make it a trifecta after Canada’s men’s and women’s hockey teams won gold in the Olympic Games in February, it was not to be. The Canadians beat Norway 3-0 to earn bronze, while the historical gold sweep in a single event went to the mixed curling team led by Jim Armstrong, which succeeded where the sledge hockey team faltered, beating Russia 8-3 for gold.

Canadian Para-alpine athletes took half of the country’s medal haul in Sochi, with sit-skier Josh Dueck winning gold in super-combined and silver in downhill. Visually impaired 16-year-old skier Mac Marcoux and his guide Robin Fémy won three medals in all— a gold in giant slalom and a bronze in each of downhill and super-G. Canadian Nordic skier Chris Kiebl scooped up gold in the 10 km sit-ski race, beating the Russian favourites by a whopping 16.8 seconds. Sit-skiers Caleb Brousseau and Kimberly Joines won bronze medals in men’s super-G and women’s slalom, respectively, while Nick Brush guided visually impaired Chris Williamson to a bronze in slalom.

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Meanwhile, 24-year-old Mark Arendz, reigning World Cup biathlon champion, grabbed two medals. Arendz was this close to gold in the men’s 7.5 km standing biathlon but had to be satisfied with silver. In the men’s standing 12.5 km biathlon, he finished third.

In this field of athletes, physical impairments may be the result of accident, disease or injuries sustained in war, among other causes. Regardless of the challenge faced by individual Paralympic athletes, the result in a given event is determined by “skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus, the same factors that account for success in sport for able-bodied athletes.” For the dynamic athletes at the Sochi Paralympics 2014, those factors came into brilliant focus.

Photo credits, from top: © AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin; © www.cbc.ca; © Canadian Paralympic Committee; © www.cbc.ca.

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