The 2014 Sochi Paralympics kicked off with a lavish opening ceremony at Fisht Stadium on Friday.
Titled “Breaking the Ice,” the ceremony centered around the Paralympic ideal of breaking down barriers, and celebrated Russian history and culture. It consisted of 2,500 performers, including singers, ballerinas and a famous opera singer.
The ceremony was a spectacular display of choreography, athleticism and light.
Team Canada’s 54 Paralympic athletes entered the stadium 19th, getting a big cheer from the sold out crowd as they beamed and saluted the stands.
Canada was led into the stadium by flag-bearer Sonja Gaudet. The Canadian wheelchair curler is going for her third straight Paralympic gold medal in the sport, and has been part of three world championship-winning rinks for Canada. She’s the most-decorated wheelchair curler in history.
"This was an extremely humbling and emotional experience for me," Gaudet said after the ceremony.
"The ceremony was an incredibly magical production that left me thinking in my own little world for quite some time! But it is game time now — time to do what we came here for and that is to compete at the sport of wheelchair curling!"
The Paralympians entered the stadium from a central ramp, akin to the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and paraded through the venue while 204 illuminated light poles on the grounds mimicked the feeling of walking through the forest.
Amid the growing tensions in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, only one of the Ukrainain Paralympic team’s 23 athletes participated in the athlete march at the ceremony: flag-bearer Mykailo Tkachenko. The rest of the team opted to remain in the entry tunnel as an act of protest. Despite that, Tkachenko and Ukraine received one of the loudest cheers of the night.
There was talk that Ukraine wold pull out of the Paralympics due to the tensions, but earlier Friday, Ukranian Paralympic chief Valeriy Sushkevich said the country would compete as long as the conflict does not escalate.
Calls to break down barriers
Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the conflict’s central figures, drew a raucous cheer from the Fisht Stadium crowd when he appeared to open the Games officially.
One of the most moving speeches came from Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee. He emphasized a need for changing perceptions and breaking down barriers, calling on athletes and spectators to become catalysts for change.
'The sport you witness here will change you. Not just for now, but forever.' - Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee
"Thirty-four years ago, when the old Soviet Union declined the opportunity to stage the 1980 Paralympic Games in Moscow, the prospect of Russia staging its first Paralympic Games was nothing but a dream," Craven said.
"But dreams do come true, and since winning the Games seven years ago this part of Russia has undergone a monumental transformation. However, the biggest transformation for this country is still yet to come.
"In the same way that the city of Sochi has built a barrier-free environment for athletes and officials to enjoy, I call upon all those who experience these Games to have barrier-free minds, too.
"The sport you witness here will change you. Not just for now, but forever."
Legendary Russian Paralympians Olesya Vladykina and Sergey Shilov lit the cauldron together by touching a torch to a special flame that then travelled in stages to the top of the cauldron, which sits at the centre of Sochi's Paralympic Park. Vladykina is a double Paralympic champion in swimming, while Shilov has 10 medals in cross-country skiing over four Paralympic Games, including six gold medals.
Competition begins Saturday, with Canada’s sledge hockey team and curlers both in action, along with a full slate of events in alpine skiing and the biathlon.