A repeat of its top-three finish in gold medals in 2010 remained the goal for Canadian officials Thursday as Russia marked one year until the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi.
Celebrations were being held at Moscow’s Red Square, where the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Torch Relay route and official pictograms of the Paralympic Games were to be unveiled.
The 2014 Paralympic Games, to be held March 7-16, will be the first in Russia and will bring together 1,350 athletes and team members from 45 countries.
Canada, coming off its best-ever Winter Paralympics, will send about 50 athletes to vie for 72 medals in five sports: para-alpine skiing (including para-snowboard for the first time), biathlon, para-Nordic skiing, sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
Visually impaired cross-country skier Brian McKeever, who won three gold medals at the Vancouver Paralympics, is hoping to be part of the Canadian team that had its best-ever performance in 2010, finishing third in the gold medal count with 10 and winning 19 medals overall.
At last summer’s London Summer Paralympics, Canada fell well short of its objective of a top-eight finish, bringing home seven gold medals — well below the 19 won in 2008 in Beijing — to rank 20th among 166 nations.
Canada has turned to four-time Paralympian and accomplished coach Ozzie Sawicki as its chef de mission, or team spokesperson, in Sochi. The Cochrane, Alta., resident served as performance adviser to the Canadian para-equestrian team in London and was head coach of the para-athletics program with Athletics Canada from 2009 to 2011.
Face of 2010 Games
Athlete-wise, McKeever will probably be the Canadian team’s biggest name.
The cross-country skier from Canmore, Alta., became the face of the 2010 Games as the first Canadian Winter Paralympic athlete to be named to both the Paralympic and Olympic teams. But he didn't get the chance to compete against able-bodied athletes as Canadian team officials chose four others to compete in the 50-kilometre race.
Last month, McKeever finished first in the men’s visually impaired classic sprint at the 2013 world cross-country ski championship in Sweden.
He has a new guide in Erik Carleton, while former guide Robin McKeever, Brian’s brother, is now the head para-Nordic coach. Brian has competed in three Paralympics and won five gold medals, two silver and a bronze.
Para-alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft was the first double gold medallist for Canada at the 2010 Paralympics. The North Vancouver, B.C., native has won seven Paralympic medals, including five gold. Woolstencroft was born without legs below the knee and no left arm below the elbow.
In para-Nordic skiing, Canadian Mark Arendz captured the first IPC biathlon world championship of his career last month in Sweden, and that bodes well as the Prince Edward Island native prepares for the Sochi Games.
In January, Arendz won four silver medals and one gold in cross-country races at the Paralympic Nordic skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis.
The Vancouver Paralympics were Arendz’s first as he placed seventh in the three-kilometre biathlon. He will visit the Winter Olympic venue in Russia for a test event March 15-20.
Meanwhile, Canada’s wheelchair curling rink won its third world title in the past four years in February, beating Sweden at the world wheelchair curling championship in Sochi.
Skip Jim Armstrong, third Dennis Thiessen, second Ina Forrest and lead Sonja Gaudet won gold at the 2010 Paralympics.
Canada’s sledge hockey team is preparing for the world championship April 12-20 in Goyang, Korea, where the top five teams will qualify directly for the 2014 Sochi Games.
And Tyler Mosher, who competed in cross-country skiing at the Vancouver Paralympics, will be a Canadian to watch as para-snowboard makes its Games debut.
Mosher won two silver medals in the sling-shot snowboardcross event at para snowboarding’s competitive debut in November.
Paralyzed below the waist after breaking his back in nine places on Dec. 30, 2000, Mosher is now walking and considered an incomplete paraplegic with 40 per cent paralysis below the waist.
The Canadian team will be announced next February.