Four years ago, a veteran team led Canada to its best-ever performance at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver.
A mix of youth and experience have equally high expectations at the Sochi Games.
“Our mantra has been perform in the moment and take pride in the journey,” Canadian chef de mission Ozzie Sawicki said this week. “Our business is sport and that’s why we’re here — to win.”
Canada collected a record 19 medals back in 2010, but the retirement of some top athletes means a lot of hardware will have to come from elsewhere this time around.
The Canadian Paralympic Committee has set a lofty goal of finishing top three in gold medals, something it accomplished in Vancouver with a record-setting 10.
Matching that performance could be difficult unless some talent previously untested on this stage steps up with big performances.
The Vancouver Paralympics belonged to Canadian alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft, who dominated with five gold medals. She retired after those Games, as did teammates Viviane Forest (one gold, three silver, one bronze) and Karolina Wisniewska (two bronze).
“I think the biggest change that’s happened is over the period of time between now and Vancouver we’ve seen a lot of younger athletes that have come to the fore,” said Sawicki. “The advantage that we have is we have a lot of senior athletes that have been in a good position to mentor those young up-and-comers.”
Some of those veterans include 10-time Paralympic cross-country skiing medalist Brian McKeever and medal-winning alpine skiers Chris Williamson, Josh Dueck and Kimberly Joines.
Also in the hunt will be a wheelchair curling team that won gold in both 2006 and 2010, as well as a sledge hockey squad that was victorious eight years ago but has retooled after finishing a disappointing fourth in Vancouver.
The new blood on the Paralympic team includes rising star Mac Marcoux, who at 16 has burst onto the scene in the last 12 months and is a medal hopeful in alpine.
“Getting on the podium would be super cool but coming into the Games, I just want to be open- minded and just ski as hard as we can and see what we can do,” said Marcoux, who is visually impaired and skis with a guide. “Hopefully it works out in the end.”
Mark Arendz, 24, comes in as the reigning biathlon World Cup champion, while 30-year-old Kurt Oatway — who wasn’t even on skis when the last Paralympics took place — could also contend for a medal.
“We have certain expectations of some of our younger athletes to now be the new stars that are on the stage,” said Sawicki. “We’d like to see them (step up) at these Games.”
Dueck said an alpine team that won 13 of Canada’s medals in 2010 is ready to do its part, even though Woolstencroft, Forest and Wisniewska are now out of the picture.
“I think we’re challenging ourselves. We have a young team with a lot of potential,” said the sit-skier. “There are a lot of us that can medal on any given day, and if we do I think we can meet and exceed our goals that we’ve set for ourselves, which are ambitious.
“We are a young squad and we have to anticipate that this is a big event. I’m very interested in how they respond to it, and I do believe they’re going to step up to the challenge.”
Last month, the Canadian Olympic team just missed matching its total from Vancouver, finishing one off with 25 medals (10 gold, 10 silver and 5 bronze) in Sochi.
Meanwhile, Sawicki said Canadian officials have been keeping tabs on the tense and rapidly changing situation in Ukraine. On Thursday, the new leader of the country’s Crimea region said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all Ukrainian military bases that have yet to surrender.
Sochi is less than 500 kilometres from Crimea.
“In terms of monitoring, we’re working very closely with the Canadian federal government representatives, working closely with the RCMP as our security team on site (and) getting daily briefings as to what we need to know,” said Sawicki. “The core focus here is the business of sport and our athletes are very focused on their performance opportunities here and that’s where we remain. We’re focused on the Games and on the sports.”
There have been calls in some circles back in Canada for the Paralympic team to pull out of Sochi in protest, but sledge hockey captain Greg Westlake said he’s happy the team is staying put.
“I don’t think athletes should be used as part of a political message,” he said. “There’s other things politicians can do to send a message, and not allowing me to compete in sledge hockey isn’t one of them.”
Dueck added that he didn’t see much point in leaving Russia because whatever message being sent would likely fall on deaf ears.
“Not to devalue what I’m doing and we’re doing as a group of Canadian athletes but I’m not sure if we stood up and left that it would change what’s going on over there,” he said. “I think that momentum has been set a long time ago and I really hope that whatever is going on there is resolved peacefully.”
Security remains tight around the venues in the coastal and mountain clusters, with police, security personnel and volunteers manning multiple check points both inside and outside the perimeter.
“I feel safe,” said Westlake. “We’re in touch with the RCMP. We have RCMP here in the athletes village with us. We’re in touch with the Canadian embassy. Everything we’ve heard is that we’re safe. If we were ever in one per cent danger we’d be out of here.”