Andrew Haley beat cancer twice as a child, so beating someone across a swimming pool in a race for a gold medal doesn't rank as the be-all and end-all challenge in his life.
"To this day, I don't think any other battles that I have will be as tough," said Haley, a 30-year-old member of Canada's Paralympic team, which will compete in Athens from Sept. 17 to 28. Swimming ranks as a third priority, after recovering from the same type of cancer that killed Canadian legend Terry Fox and earning a masters degree. But swimming did help give Haley some focus at the age of 15 after he'd lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 6, then part of a lung when the cancer reoccurred at age 8.
"My perspective on life is a lot different," he said. "They gave me 35-per-cent chance to live for both cancers, so I'm happy to be here, but I feel I'm here for a reason. There are bigger things ahead for me."
The 30-year-old swimmer is on his fourth Paralympic team. He did the gold-medal deed at the Sydney Games in 2000. Haley, of Dartmouth, N.S., has also set world records for his amputee class in the demanding butterfly stroke at 50, 100 and 200 metres.
His is but one of the victory stories among the 144 athletes (91 men and 53 women) from all 10 provinces who will compete in 13 of the 19 sports on the Games program. The youngest member is swimmer Rhea Schmidt, 18, and the oldest is sailor David Williams, 65.
Haley, born in Moncton, was 6 in 1980 when he fell while playing with his brother Brett. The examination of his broken leg revealed osteosarcoma, and the need for an amputation carried out in Halifax.
After many chemotherapy treatments, he felt on the road to recovery. But in January of 1982, "while I was packing my things to go home from hospital after my last treatment, I was approached by the doctors and told that the cancer was now in my left lung."
Another operation, another recovery and another lesson in determination for everyone around him. When he recovered enough to go to school, Haley often chose to walk rather than take a bike, to be comfortable with his prosthesis and let other kids know he was like them; not weaker, but in some ways stronger.
That might explain why he has two Canadian flag tattoos to show off to fellow competitors. One is on his back, "because that's where I want them to see it as I pull away. I swim butterfly, and to have it on my chest like Curtis Myden did, it wouldn't be seen."
The other is on his right leg prosthesis, a nylon logo applied with sandpaper and glue. "And some people ask me if it's real," he said.
Four athletes are headed to their sixth Paralympic Games: Jacques Martin and Clayton Gerein in track and field and Linda Kutrowski and Chantal Benoit in wheelchair basketball.
In Australia, Canada won a record total of 96 medals and finished third overall in the country standings. The Canadian Paralympic Committee estimates that Canada's smaller Athens team can finish among the top eight countries and win about 80 medals.
Several medals, and potentially world records, are expected from wheelchair racers Jeff Adams and Chantal Petitclerc and amputee sprinter Earle Connor. Canada looks to defend its men's and women's basketball titles led by Patrick Anderson and Chantal Benoît.
Canada is the wheelchair rugby world champion.
Among other outstanding swim team members are Stephanie Dixon, who won six medals in Sydney, and Liz Walker and Walter Wu with four Paralympic golds each.