Field of Play: Awakening to the Truth of the Paralympics

By Scott Russell, CBC Sports Posted: Mar 11, 2014

Sit-skier Josh Dueck , of Vernon, B.C., pushes the limit every time he competes, helping to break down traditional barriers in Paralympic sport.

Brian McKeever wins Canada’s first gold 5:57

Canada’s Lauren Woolstencroft, who won five gold medals at the 2010 Paralympics, says more people are seeing the Games as a high-performance sporting event. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
Following my return from Russia and the Olympic spectacle, I honestly thought the subsequent broadcast of the Paralympic Winter Games from Sochi was going to be a grind.

I was never more wrong.

Each day as I witness the Paralympians in action, I feel myself reawakening to the magic of sport, not to mention the resilience and fortitude that can reveal itself during the course of honest competition.

The Games are nearly half over they’ve flown by and somehow I wish they’d never end.

The crowds have been spectacular and the athletes themselves have worked wonders.

I no longer think of them as disabled, in spite of the fact that they ski at mind-boggling speeds in fragile, sled-like contraptions; or legally blind while following trailblazing guides down the mountain. It amazes me that sledge hockey players who are missing limbs and have severely limited mobility can bang and crash with the best of them and fire the puck like cannons at the opposing net.

Shifting away from inspiration, participation
So good is visually-impaired cross-country star Brian McKeever that he wore out not one but two guide skiers on his way to a gold medal in dominating the 20-kilometre race at Sochi’s Laura nordic facility.

How could anyone not be impressed by McKeever’s raw athleticism?

Lauren Woolstencroft was born without one arm and missing both legs below the knees. Yet she went on to win eight Paralympic titles as an alpine skier while claiming five gold medals at the 2010 Games in Vancouver/Whistler alone. She’s the first winter Paralympian to be inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.

“I always left the Games feeling the Paralympic movement and accessibility were better understood and I have no doubt the same will be true in Russia,” Woolstencroft told me.

She added that Canadians were exposed to the reality of this kind of sport like never before at the 2010 edition of the Paralympics, and that the lines which too often separate able-bodied athletes and their disabled counterparts have been altered forever.

“I think there was a real change in those Games in that people began to see the Paralympics as no longer just an inspiration, participation event,” Woolstencroft reckoned. “Instead they saw the Games as a high-performance sporting event where athletes were pushing boundaries every day.”

Indeed, these Games in Sochi have had that kind of influence on me.

Most striking is the example of sit-skier Josh Dueck of Kimberley, B.C. A former freestyle coach who crashed and broke his back a decade ago, becoming paralyzed from the waist down, Dueck now roars down the track at Rosa Khutor in each of his events. He’s even been known to do a back flip at high speed.

Breaking down barriers

He is a high performance athlete by any definition of the word.

“Sport is a creative art for me,” Dueck suggested, when I interviewed him at last summer’s Olympic/Paralympic summit in Vancouver. “It’s a way to become the person I am and I begin each run by asking, ‘What will the mountain allow me to do today?'”

‘Paralympians are tough.’
– Colette Bourgonje, Paralympic cross-country skier and racerThe attitude that these are “disabled” athletes is no longer valid, in my estimation. They may be athletes who compete with a disability or impairment but there is nothing about their capacity to compete and amaze which is any different from anyone else.

More astounding is that I find myself wondering: What old barrier will Dueck eradicate each time he gets to the start line?

They see themselves as athletes, first and foremost.

“Paralympians are tough,” said cross-country skier Colette Bourgonje.

She’s 52 years old and was rendered paraplegic 34 years ago after being hit by a car. Bourgonje has since competed in seven Paralympic Winter Games as a skier, and Summer Games racing in a wheelchair. She’s won multiple medals in both and is the first person in a wheelchair to graduate from the University of Saskatchewan’s physical education department.

Bourgonje works as an elementary school teacher in Saskatoon when she’s not racing, and was named the province’s female athlete of the year in 2010.

“This is all about ability,” she emphasized.

And she’s right, as is snowboarder Tyler Mosher who, at long last, is getting a chance to compete in his favourite sport as it makes a debut on the Paralympic program.

Mosher isn’t in Russia simply to take part.

“I feel like I’ve won the gold medal already,” he offered. “And yes, it’s a great journey but I play to win.”

Which is the essence of all sport and something which I’m convinced applies, without prejudice, to these incredible competitors.

It’s the awakening that inevitably comes over you when you accept the Paralympians for who they are. They’re athletes, pure and simple, who give it everything they’ve got each time they venture onto the field of play.

And, to me, that’s sport without an asterisk.

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