After a welcome from the Queen and an opening-ceremony narration by Stephen Hawking, Canada's Paralympians are ready for business – the business of winning medals.
Like their Olympic peers, Canadian athletes have come to London with a distinct mission. The goal is to win 40 to 50 medals overall and finish among the top eight nations. It would be a sizable accomplishment but not much different from what the country managed four years ago in Beijing.
Although Canada's Summer Paralympians have never been better supported – they received a record $3-million in Own The Podium funding over the past 12 months for the Games that begin on Thursday – they're also competing in a talent pool that has never been deeper.
More countries are involved every quadrennial, from 136 in Athens to 148 in Beijing to 160 in London. China and Britain, having played host to the past two Olympics, have increased their funding and hired more coaches for better training. Still a world leader in the Winter Paralympics, Canada is in a fight to maintain its Summer Games status.
"Canada was an early leader [in the Summer Paralympics]," said Anne Merklinger, chief executive officer of the OTP program that helped Canada win the most gold medals (14) at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and 10 more at the 2010 Winter Paralympics. "We had success in the 1990s and early 2000s and we had our successes in Beijing. But we know going into these particular Paralympics that we're in tough."
Canadian Paralympic Committee officials have acknowledged much has been done for the 145 London athletes. Since 2008, OTP has given $21-million to the development of Summer Paralympic sports. Henry Storgaard, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, told reporters in London that corporate Canada has also increased its investment in Paralympic sports with some sponsors doubling their commitment.
"Just a huge updraft from Vancouver and that has really taken us to a new platform," he said, noting how the CPC used that money to "support the team and all our national sport organizations, the coaches, the trainers, the physios." Ninety-five support staff members are with the Canadian team in London.
While Canada is trying to keep pace in some sports, it remains exceptionally strong in swimming and athletics. More than 40 swimmers achieved the qualifying standard, but only 24 were allowed to compete in London due to number restrictions set by the International Paralympic Committee.
Over the next 11 days there will be surprises and disappointments, but the question among Canadian sports leaders is: What happens once the London Paralympics are over? What's next for Canada's Summer Paralympians? "Now the challenge is how do we keep growing and evolving because there's still a lot to do," Mr. Storgaard acknowledged.
Ms. Merklinger sees two specific needs.
"We've identified a need to build a base level by recruiting new and young Paralympic athletes," she explained. "It's a two-pronged approach – making sure the CPC works for all sports and provinces and territories and also working with those athletes who have podium opportunities in London and on to Rio [for 2016]."
To recruit and develop more athletes, the CPC needs more money. That's why the organization came up with its Pass the Torch funding campaign announced this week. Donations of $20.12 will be used to help Canadian children with a disability participate in sports and perhaps become the next Para-Nordic skier Brian McKeever or wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc, who won five gold medals at the 2008 Paralympics.
Ms. Petitclerc is at the London Paralympics, but not competing. She was hired as coach by the British Paralympic Association.
With a report from The Canadian Press