Canadian Paralympic team enjoying best-ever support

There has never been a Canadian Paralympic team as well funded and supported as the one currently in London for the 2012 Games, where Canada's objective is to finish in the top eight in the overall gold-medal count.
Canadian track star Diane Roy will race in the 400, 800, 1,500 and 5,000 metres, as well as the marathon. (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

There has never been a Canadian Paralympic team as well funded and supported as the one currently in London for the 2012 Games.

The bounce the country's Paralympians experienced following the 2010 Vancouver Olympics came at a crucial time.

More countries are competing in Paralympics and there's more money behind that competition. It's harder for Canadians to win Paralympic medals than it was just eight years ago.

Canada's objective in London is to finish top-eight in the overall gold-medal count. After finishing tied for third in 2000 and third in 2004, Canada slipped to seventh in 2008 with 19 gold.

"Our athletes all know they cannot just repeat their past performance that put them on the podium," chef de mission Gaetan Tardif said Tuesday in London. "It's likely if they have the same time as the last Games, it will not be good enough.

"The competition is truly getting fierce at the Paralympic level. A number of nations have joined the movement and increased participation and funding in the movement."

China is a big mover in Paralympic sport since hosting the Games in 2008. Tardif points out that country has a pool of 40 million people with a disability from which to draw. That's more than Canada's total population of 35 million.

The Canadian Paralympic Committee spent a record $3 million preparing its team for London. The CPC was able to do that because the federal government and corporate sector stepped up with money following the 2010 Winter Games.

"We have the largest support team ever," said CPC chief executive officer Henry Storgaard. "We will spend the most amount of money we've ever spent supporting the team and all of our national sport organizations, the coaches, the trainers, the physios."

The London Paralympic Games begin with Wednesday's opening ceremony. Veteran wheelchair rugby player Garett Hickling of Kelowna, B.C., will roll the Maple Leaf into Olympic Stadium.

The 41-year-old is competing in his fifth Paralympics with two silver and a bronze earned in previous Games.

Canada has 145 athletes competing in 15 of the 20 Paralympic sports. With the help of 95 support staff, Tardif hopes Canada can produce between 40 and 50 medals before the Games close Sept. 9.

"There's been an influx of qualified personnel working with us, physiologists and physiotherapists," said boccia player Marco Dispaltro of St-Jerome, Que.

Increased funding allowed the Paralympic team to send advance scouts to London a year out from the Games. They returned with reports on venues and logistics, according to assistant chef de mission Elisabeth Walker-Young.

Canada won 18 medals, including one gold, at the Olympics that wrapped up earlier this month.

About 4,200 athletes from 160 countries — up from 148 four years ago in Beijing — are expected for these Paralympic Games. A London billboard message from the Paralympians to the Olympians reads "Thanks for the warm-up."

"It looks like it's going to be the greatest Paralympics ever," Dispaltro said. "We're excited to be here and the visibility is going to be awesome."

Britain is considered the birthplace of the Paralympic movement because of the work of Dr. Ludwig Guttman, who introduced sport into the lives of paraplegics at a hospital in Stoke Mandeville. Wednesday's opening ceremony marks the 64th anniversary of an archery competition held there for athletes with a disability.

"The Games are coming home to the country where they began," Guttman's granddaughter Eva Loeffler told Canada's athletes during a flag-raising ceremony earlier this week.

Canada should be a powerhouse at the pool in London, led by decorated Paralympians Benoit Huot and Valerie Grand'Maison of Montreal, as well as rookie Paralympian Summer Mortimer of Hamilton.

Paul Tingley of Halifax will attempt to defend his gold medal in sailing as will Lauren Barwick of Aldersgrove, B.C., in equestrian.

At the track, wheelchair sprinter Michelle Stilwell of Nanoose Bay, B.C., is chasing a repeat of her titles in the 100 and 200 metres.

Distance racer Diane Roy of Sherbrooke, Que., whose nickname is "The Warhorse", will race the 400, 800, 1,500 and 5,000 metres as well as the marathon.

The gold medal in the 5,000 was literally taken from around her neck four years ago in Beijing. She'd won the event, but a re-race was ordered because of a crash involving six competitors on the penultimate lap. Roy finished second in the re-run.

Robbi Weldon of Thunder Bay, Ont., competed in the 2010 Games as a para-nordic skier and is now a medal hopeful in cycling. The visually impaired athlete has former Olympic cyclist Lyne Bessette as her guide. Together, they won the road race and took silver in the time trial at the world championships two years ago.

Own The Podium, which oversees the competitive aspects of athletes' lives between Games, has invested $21 million in Paralympic summer sport in the four years since the 2008 Games, almost tripling what was spent the previous quadrennial.

Canada's corporate community is beginning to invest in Paralympic athletes now, too. Some sponsorship contracts currently under renewal are doubling their money, according to Storgaard.

"Just a huge updraft from Vancouver that has really taken us to a new platform," Storgaard said. "Now the challenge is how do we keep growing and evolving because there's still a lot to do."