Ten years ago, while lying in a hospital bed in London, Ont., after my accident, the thought of simply walking again was a pipe dream.
It was about as likely to happen as representing Canada at the Paralympic Winter Games. On a cold blustery evening in February 2007, just outside of Cambridge, Ont., the helicopter I was piloting crashed into a farmer’s field during a maintenance flight. After being rescued and delivered to Hamilton General hospital by a large team of firefighters and paramedics, I was placed in an induced coma while doctors performed multiple surgeries on my broken body.
Like Humpty Dumpty and all the King’s men, the doctors attempted to put my shattered legs and pelvis back together again. The violence of the crash had also broken my neck in two places. I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury and would spend the rest of my life living with quadriplegia. As the prospect of walking withdrew farther out of reach, becoming a Paralympian and proudly wearing the maple leaf became my new focus.
I started wheelchair curling in 2010, so making the national team for the 2014 Paralympic Games appeared to be nearly impossible, especially considering the high quality of curlers in Canada, not to mention the fact that I’m quadriplegic, with limited function of my arms and hands.
Most wheelchair curlers have full use of their upper body and core muscles, so I was facing a serious disadvantage.
In spite of the challenging odds against me, I really felt I had found my athletic, competitive self again, and I was determined to pursue my new goal. Prior to my injury, I led an active life. I spent time playing the two sports I was most passionate about: hockey and golf.
As luck would have it, Team Canada was conducting a coast-to-coast talent search in 2011, inspired by their amazing gold-medal performance at the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver. I attended a camp held in Grimsby, Ont., where I expressed my intent to become part of the national wheelchair curling program.
From the talent identification camps, a total of 28 athletes were invited to Vancouver to try out for Team Canada, and I was one of them — one of only two with quadriplegia. After numerous training camps at the facility in Richmond, B.C., 28 athletes were eventually cut to 14, then 14 went down to eight, and finally, eight became five.
Making the final five, and ultimately winning Gold at the 2013 world championship in Sochi, Russia was a testament to hard work, dedication, and sacrifice from my family. There is nothing more satisfying in sport than having your country's flag on your back, and a gold medal hanging around your neck.
The lead-up to the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi was incredibly exciting, but also extremely busy. Our team was selected, rather than decided by a play down, so our team members and staff from all across Canada met for training camps or bonspiels every 10 days from August 2013 until February 2014, when we left for Russia.
Sochi was everything you could expect in a Paralympic event. Bigger than life, loud, completely exhausting, and very emotional — I don't think I've ever cried so many happy tears in my life!
One of the highlights was the staging for the opening ceremony. We were bused from the Athletes’ Village to the underground entrance of the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where teams from around the world congregated in their country’s colours.
Team Canada members gathered, took pictures, and sang O Canada as we snaked our way through the tunnels. When we finally reached the bottom of the ramp that led onto the stage, the ground was shaking from the noise of the fans and the bass of the speakers.
Veteran athletes, who had been part of opening ceremony before, started hooting and yelling “Here we go, here we go,” as we rolled our way onto the stage. My heart swelled with pride and tears welled in my eyes as Team Canada marched into the stadium in front of 40,000 screaming fans. It's a moment I'll surely never forget.
To come home from Sochi with another gold medal, this time from the Paralympics, was beyond my wildest dreams, considering where the journey began…in that hospital bed in London, Ont.
The lead-up to the PyeongChang 2018 Games has been far different from the 2014 experience. Back when I began, there was excitement about being part of a competitive team again, and surreal thoughts of “How did I get here?” Now, I’m considered a veteran, given my experience at the Paralympics and four world championships. If I earn a spot on the team again, I will be honored and thrilled to go the 2018 Paralympic Games alongside talented teammates, but this time I will have much higher expectations of myself.
Canada has won gold in wheelchair curling at the last three Paralympic Games, so I’d be lying if I said that isn’t lingering in the back of my mind as the team sets sights on yet another Paralympic gold medal. The preparation for PyeongChang has had more of an international focus. In order to be the best, you have to compete against the best. We have arranged friendly international matches to see where we currently stand and to examine whether our training efforts and strategic changes are supporting our golden vision.
In the months remaining before the Games, I’ll continue to spend hours in the gym, hours on the ice, hours studying game film from years past and present, and countless hours fine-tuning my mental focus with mindfulness training.
Although I cannot guarantee Canada will win a gold medal, I can prepare myself both physically and mentally, so if I am selected I can help give the team the best opportunity to stand on top of the podium once again.