Paralympians carry Canada’s hopes at the Sydney Games
Spending seven hours a day on a
basketball court passing, shooting and playmaking may seem like an exhausting way to spend a weekend. For Ottawa’s Chantal Benoit, it’s a breeze. “At training camp we do it every day,” says the 40-year-old wheelchair-basketball player. She has kept up her training for the past 17 years, making sacrifices along the way, including time away from her husband and her career as a Web designer. But her dedication has made her good—so good that her peers have dubbed her the Michael Jordan of her sport, the best player in the world.
As co-captain of the Canadian women’s wheelchair-basketball squad, she has also led her teammates to one of the most impressive records in sports. Since 1990, they have never been defeated in official international competition. They won gold at the Paralympic I Games in 1992 in Barcelona and again % in 1996 in Atlanta. Their goal: to three| peat at the 2000 Paralympic Games i that begin next week in Sydney. “We know the competition,” says Benoit. “And we know we can win.”
They won’t be alone in trying. From Oct. 18 to 29, a record 4,000 athletes from 125 countries—22 more than in Atlanta—are expected to participate. Comprised of 18 sports and 521 events, the Paralympics are the premier competition for athletes with disabilities. Canada, with its largest team ever of 162 athletes, will be trying to better its seventh-place Adanta finish.
Yet, as recent Olympic upsets show,
medals cannot be taken for granted. In every event, the level of athletic excellence is expected to reach an all-time high. Part of the credit goes to advancements in artificial limbs and wheelchair design. Equally important is the determination and drive of the athletes. “We never dreamed the commitment of the athletes, coaches and the opportunities would be as good as they are,” says International Paralympic Committee president, Robert Steadward.
The visionary behind the Paralympic
Games was Dr. Ludwig Guttman, a British neurosurgeon. Working with former Second World War servicemen, Guttman recognized the mental and physical benefits of including sport in the recovery of patients with physical disabilities. When the 1948 Olympic Games opened in London, the surgeon, who worked at England’s Stoke Mandeville Hospital, organized a wheelchair-sports competition on the hospi-
tal’s grounds. Called the Stoke Mandeville Games, the event was opened up to international competitors in 1952. The name was changed to Paralympics in 1960—“para” to signify parallel to the Olympics. Over the years, new sporting events were added and amputees, blind athletes and those with visual impairments and cerebral palsy were included. In 1976, the first Winter Paralympics were held in Sweden.
Today, the Paralympics play an important part in the planning of the Olympics. In the bid for the 2008 Games, Toronto and its four competitors must, for the first time, complete an eight-part proposal on how they plan to host the Paralympics as well. A member of the International Paralympic Committee will also sit on the Olympic committee evaluating the bids.
But the Games’ real boosters are the
athletes. Jeff Adams of Brampton, Ont., the defending 800-m champ, is so popular in the world of wheelchair racing that he receives support from McDonald’s, Adidas and Bell Mobility, among others. “We look at Jeff as a world-class performer, just like Elvis Stojko, Silken Laumann and the other athletes we sponsor,” says McDonald’s spokeswoman Maureen Shaughnessy-Kitts. Last month, Adams,
Technology helps athletes go faster, higher and farther
29, competed in the 1,500-m race that was a demonstration sport at the Olympics, placing fifth.
Like many Paralympic competitors, Adams, who was partially paralyzed at
the age of 9 from a virus, considers the wheelchair nothing more than equipment. “Its no different than me racing in a kayak or on a bike,” he says. Advances in technology have helped disabled athletes go faster, higher and farther. Take American sprinter, Tony Volpentest, who was born without arms and legs from the elbows and knees down. Wearing specially designed prosthetic feet, he runs 100-m in less than
11 seconds (the world record for ablebodied men is 9.79 seconds).
What has also helped Paralympic competitors is the support many receive from their own national sporting federations. Swimmer Andrew Haley receives the same funding—about $1,100 a month—as any other Canadian A-level athlete. He also practises at Calgary’s National Sports Centre. “It pushes me to train with Canadas best, like Joanne Malar and Curtis Myden,” says Haley, who lost his right leg to bone cancer when he was 6. The amputation did not stop the Dartmouth, N.S., native, who holds a master’s degree in sports administration, from becoming the 1998 world 100-m butterfly champion. “I was given a 35-per-cent chance of living,” says Haley, 26. “I knew I could beat it, just like now when I swim. I know I can beat that clock.”
Ljiljana Ljubisic, a discus thrower and former shot-putter, has had her share of victories as well. Born healthy in Yugoslavia, Ljubisic was misdiagnosed with the flu at 16 months. She had chicken pox, and the combination of the illness and the wrong medication resulted in her gradually losing her eye-sight. When her family moved to Coquidam, B.C., in 1972, Ljubisic wasn’t allowed to play sports at school because of the progressing disability. It wasn’t until Grade 11 that a teacher finally recognized Ljubisic’s athletic potential. “I joined every team,” she says. “All I yearned for was acceptance, and finally I found a teacher who supported me.”
Now 39, Ljubisic began doing track and field in 1986. And since 1988, she has won medals in either the shot put or discus at every Games. But her athletic years have been plagued by tragedies. Just before the Adanta Games, one of her eyes had to be removed. And in 1997, as a result of a car accident, doctors told Ljubisic she would never compete again. She proved them wrong. In June, she started throwing world-record distances. And she is now seeking gold in Sydney. “People with disabilities are expected to fail,” she says. “Sure it might take us a little longer to learn to catch a ball or do the long jump. But the power and determination to live life to the hallest pushes us to do great things.” ED
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