Paralympics·Preview

Canadian Paralympians ready to push movement forward as Games set to begin

After a year delay and in the midst of the incessant pandemic, Canadian Paralympians say they're set to push the Paralympic movement forward.

128 athletes representing Canada in Tokyo, competing in 18 different sports

Montreal native Alison Levine, right, is the top-ranked boccia athlete in her classification. (Kevin Light Photography)

Canadian boccia player Alison Levine couldn't hold back her emotions. 

As she took to the court inside the Ariake Gymnastics Centre for her first practice a day before the Paralympics opening ceremony, she was overrun with joy, relief and pride. 

"We made it," she told CBC Sports. 

"I completely broke down crying. I was not expecting that. It was a very emotional feeling that finally, after everything I've been through, after everything the world has been through, to make it here and to be able to do what I love again, it got to me. It hit me. It really hit me."

After a year delay and in the midst of the incessant pandemic, the Paralympics are finally here. Around 4,400 athletes from more than 160 nations will be competing in 22 sports throughout the course of the Games.

Canadians will be competing in 18 of the 22 sports. 

The team will be led into the Games by flag-bearer Priscilla Gagné, who is a 35-year-old visually impaired judoka from Sarnia, Ont. She is ranked second in the world in the women's 52-kilogram division. 

WATCH | Priscilla Gagné leads Canadian delegation in parade of athletes:

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Levine, from Montreal, is one of 128 Canadian athletes competing in Tokyo. She's ranked No. 1 in the world in her classification, the first woman to hold the top position. 

"It's so hard to put into words the pride I feel in this. To show the world and any little girl or anyone with a disability watching, you can make it here. You can do anything," she said. "If I have one person who watches me or has heard me go out and try a sport, then I've done my job as an athlete."

It's a feeling shared by Canadian wheelchair basketball superstar Patrick Anderson.

At 42 years old, Anderson is making his fifth Paralympics appearance. He's won three gold medals and one silver medal in his previous four Games. 

Anderson, from Fergus, Ont., was struck by a drunk driver when he was nine and lost both of his legs below the knees. Two years after that he discovered wheelchair basketball. He's considered the best in the world at the sport.

Canada's Patrick Anderson, left, will be making his fifth Paralympics appearance at the Tokyo Games. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Canadian Press)

After skipping the Rio Games, he's back on the team and hopes to get them back to the podium.  

"Every four years we have an opportunity to move the Paralympics forward, the Paralympic movement forward and the kind of advocacy it means for people with disabilities around the world," he told CBC Sports. "Put on a good show and hopefully bring home a medal and make Canadians proud that way."

The Tokyo Paralympics are getting primetime coverage in North America this summer, marking the first time both CBC in Canada and an American network in the U.S. will air the event in the evenings.

Once competition begins on Wednesday in Tokyo, CBC will present a one-hour show from 7-8 p.m. local time, part of five hours of daily coverage on the network. In addition, as many as 12 events will be streamed live on CBCSports.ca and CBC GEM each day.

Canada's chef de mission, Stephanie Dixon, says great strides continue to be made in the Paralympic movement.  

"Anyone who witnesses the Paralympic Games will be changed. We just needed the coverage and that's happening now. More people than ever will see the Paralympic Games and people will be changed," she told CBC Sports.

"We are at a beautiful time in the Paralympic movement. We're also at a time where the Paralympics are more than sport. It's about human rights and inclusion and all people achieving their dreams."

WATCH | Canadian Paralympians to watch at Tokyo 2020:

Dixon, who won 19 Paralympic medals swimming at the Games, says the Canadian athletes understand the importance of their role in inspiring people across the country.  

"You see the human spirit at its greatest, especially in these times of COVID. I think that when we watch Paralympic athletes compete, and the heart and bravery and the courage, it makes everyone else want to be brave and courageous as well," Dixon said. 

"This has always been a bigger movement and changing the way people view people living with disabilities. The world is finally ready to hear that."

These Games are taking place amidst Tokyo in a fourth state of emergency. Spectators have been banned from attending events. There have already been positive cases inside the Athletes' Village, however, Dixon says Team Canada feels comfortable in all the protocols that have been put in place to protect the athletes.

"I'm so impressed with the feedback we've heard from the athletes. I have not heard anyone's doubts about the measures. They're feeling very confident not only in the 2020 measures but also in the additional measures the Canadian Paralympic committee has put in place," she said.

International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons echoes Dixon's statements regarding the safety precautions.

"We believe things will go well. We will have cases. It's impossible to have zero positive cases but the important thing is how you then monitor them and isolate them from the rest of the athletes, officials and everyone around these Games," he said.

And Parsons believes that these Paralympics are the most important in the history of the Games considering the challenges the athletes have faced preparing to get to Tokyo. 

"We believe now is when their voices need to be heard the most. And the Paralympics Games is the only global event that puts persons with disabilities to centre stage. So we are giving them the voice. The time when their voice needs to be heard the most. That's why I think these Games are the most important ever," Parson said. 

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