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Canada has largest-ever team for Parapan Am Games

Canada is gunning for a top-three spot in the medals table at the Parapan Am Games, which open Friday, and like its Canadian Pan Am predecessor, is fielding its biggest team ever — 216 athletes.

216 athletes will represent nation in Toronto

Elisabeth Walker-Young, Canada’s chef de mission for the upcoming Parapan Am Games, is also a four-time Paralympian in swimming. (Ho/Canadian Press)

Elisabeth Walker-Young watched from her Vancouver home as Canadian athletes shone in front of a jam-packed crowds at the Pan American Games earlier this month.

Now it's time for her team to do its part.

Canada is gunning for a top-three spot in the medals table at the Parapan Am Games, which open Friday, and like its Canadian Pan Am predecessor, is fielding its biggest team ever — 216 athletes.

"Seeing their performances, and seeing them wear the red and white with pride, our athletes always build off of that," said Walker-Young. "Watching them and seeing Curt (Harnett, Canada's chef de mission for Pan Ams) lead the team, I don't know how we couldn't come in and be proud."

The four-time Paralympian in swimming is Canada's chef de mission for a Parapan Am squad that is looking to get back to a lofty spot it once occupied among the world's best.

At the Parapan Ams four years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico, Canada finished eighth in gold medals, and fifth in overall medals. Brazil dominated the Games, winning 197 total medals — 81 gold, 61 silver, and 55 bronze — and a year out from hosting the Rio Paralympics, will be a force to contend with in Toronto.

The United States won 132 medals (51-47-34) in Mexico, while the host country finished with 165 (50-60-55). Canada brought home 63 medals from Guadalajara — 13 gold, 22 silver and 28 bronze.

"We used to be leaders in the Paralympic nations, the Canadian Paralympic goal is to become leaders once again in the Paralympic movement," Walker-Young said.

Boccia player Marco Dispaltro will carry Canada's flag into the opening ceremonies Friday at the new athletics stadium at York University.

Walker-Young, who won three gold, a silver and two bronze medals over the course of a career that spanned the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics to the 2004 Athens Games, said her heart rate "went up about a hundred beats per minute," when asked about marching out with the Canadian team.

"Having been an athlete, I remember walking in at opening ceremonies when I was a 15-year-old," she said. "So right now it's excitement, it's a little bit of nerves. While I hung up my competition suit 10 years ago, my nerves are now for the athletes and I know how much they give up, I know how much they put in, so it's a mish-mash of all kinds of emotions.

"But I'm proud of the team we put together to lead, and I'm proud of the athletes, and I can't wait to see how they perform. I hope they all reach their goals, and if they don't, I'll be there to talk them through it. But right now, it's excitement and a little bit of nerves, for me."

Marvelled at crowds 

Walker-Young marvelled at the crowds that showed up for the Pan Am Games, despite fears that Toronto would never embrace the event. She hopes fans will show the same support for the country's para-athletes.

"I hope so, because it's the same, it's sport. If people loved (the Pan Ams), they'll love this. It's incredible," she said. "I'm really hoping they do. Even if you don't know about a sport, or the specific rules, it's easy to catch on, and it's crash, bang, blood, sweat, tears, and successes and failures. If you love sport, you'll love this."

These are the largest Parapan Am Games in history, with 1,600 athletes from North, Central and South America participating.

Canada will be strong, Walker-Young said, in what she called the country's legacy sports: men's and women's wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby.

Fifteen sports will be contested: archery, athletics, boccia, cycling, five-a-side football, seven-a-side football, goalball, judo, powerlifting, sitting volleyball, swimming, table tennis, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis. All are qualifiers for next summer's Paralympics.

"There's a lot at stake," said Catherine Gosselin-Depres, the Canadian Paralympic Committee's executive director of sport. "For the first time the Parapan Ams are direct qualifiers in every sport for the upcoming Paralympic Games in Rio. In many cases, you will have to win here just to get to Brazil."

At the Pan Ams that wrapped up almost two weeks ago, Canada finished second in medals, with 217 — 78 gold, 69 silver, and 70 bronze.

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