By Rachal Fleury and Mary Beth Walker
Have you ever seen Patrick Anderson drop a three-pointer at the buzzer or Chantal Petitclerc race to a record in the 800 meters?
If not, you’re missing out on some great sport. Patrick Anderson is a member of Canada’s double-gold medal winning Paralympic team and is considered the world’s best wheelchair basketball player, while Petitclerc is a legend in wheelchair racing.
The upcoming Beijing Paralympic Games, running from Sept. 6-17, is the premiere sporting event for high performance athletes with a physical disability. About 140 Canadian athletes, supported by about 120 staff, will venture to Beijing to compete.
The Paralympic Games now occur in conjunction with the Olympics every two years in the same city and at the same venues. The Paralympic Games morphed out of the Stoke Mandeville Games, the first organized sport competition for athletes with a physical disability. Dr. Lugwig Guttmann staged the first Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948 as part of his efforts to use sport in the rehabilitation of soldiers who were injured in World War II.
Paralympic athletes are just like Olympians, except that they have a physical disability, such as a visual impairment, an amputation, a spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy or other. They compete in classes with other elite athletes with similar physical disabilities.
“Paralympic sport is about sheer athletic determination and skill,” said Debbie Low, the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s 2008 Beijing Games Chef de Mission. “We’re looking forward to being inspired by Canada’s elite-level athletes with a physical disability as they compete at the upcoming Paralympic Games.”
There are 20 summer sports, including rowing which makes its debut in Beijing. Most of the sports are modified versions of able-bodied sports at the Olympic Games, but there are four unique Paralympic summer sports: boccia, goalball, powerlifting and wheelchair rugby (formerly called murderball).
In Beijing, Canadian athletes will compete in archery, athletics, wheelchair basketball (men’s and women’s), boccia, cycling, equestrian, wheelchair fencing, goalball (men’s and women’s), judo, powerlifting, rowing, wheelchair rugby, sailing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and wheelchair tennis. Canada will not take part in sitting volleyball, five-a-side football, and seven-a-side football.
“The Paralympics are the biggest opportunity we (athletes) have and I want to go in there and represent (his guide runner) Greg (Dailey), my family and myself the way I know I can,” said athletics Paralympian, Jason Dunkerley. “...(But) it comes down to one race and no matter how well prepared you are, if you don't show up at your best on that day, it haunts you and lives with you and you have to wait another four years.”
Canada finished third in the medal standings at both the Sydney 2000 (with 96 medals, including 38 gold) and Athens 2004 Paralympic Games (with 72 medals including 28 gold). Canada is aiming for a top-five finish in Beijing.
“Our past success is a testament of Canada's acceptance of disabilities and its willingness to integrate people into sport,” said Gaetan Tardif, the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Assistant Chef de Mission. “I’m looking forward to the excitement of watching the athletes do well.”
Paralympic hopefuls to look out for:
* Benoit Huot is the swimmer to beat in the S10 category in Beijing. He currently holds three world records in the 200m IM, 800m freestyle and 200m backstroke and has eight Paralympic gold medals and four Paralympic silvers to his credit.
* This will be Valerie Grand’Maison’s first time competing at the Paralympic Games since joining Canada’s national swim team in 2005. She holds five long course world records (100m, 200m, 400m, 800m freestyle and 400m IM) and seven short course world records (50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m freestyle, 200m butterfly and 400m IM). At the Rio ParaPanAmerican Games in 2007, Grand’Maison won five gold and one silver.
* Jason Dunkerley is the reigning IPC world and ParaPanAmerican champion in the T11 800m and 1500m. He currently holds the Canadian and ParaPanAmerican records in both events and he’s aiming for a world record in the 1500m in Beijing(the 800m race isn’t run in the Paralympics). Dunkerley won silver in the 1500m at both the Sydney and Athens Games.
* Canadian wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc has competed in the last four Summer Paralympic Games and has already brought home a total of 16 Paralympic medals (ten gold, four silver and two bronze) and one Olympic gold medal for the 800m demonstration at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. In 2004, she was honoured with a Laureus world sports award for top sportsperson with a disability, and named Canadian of the Year by Macleans magazine.
* Both the Canadian women’s goalball team and the men’s wheelchair basketball team are vying for their third straight Paralympic gold medal in Beijing.
Now that the countdown has begun, check-in for weekly updates following Team Canada on its journey to Beijing.