Canadian athletes call for grassroots legacy from Paralympics

Audio version of this story for the visually impaired by tomorrowisaudio

ATHLETES have vowed to push for a legacy of more facilities, access to sport and greater public awareness in the wake of the most successful Paralympic Games in history.

A record 2.7 million spectators1 and increased public attention have given disabled sportsmen and women an unprecedented spotlight of influence.

Both veteran and first-time Canadian Paralympians at the 2012 games in London, United Kingdom, told Tomorrow that this enthusiasm needs to be translated to home soil and last beyond once every four years.

Canada’s medal haul of 31, seven of them gold2, is down substantially from the 50 medals and 19 gold of the Beijing Paralympics four years ago3, and Sport Canada4 – the federal government’s sport funding body – said future funding would be determined after a review of the performances.

But athletes argued that, beyond facilities and investment, they wanted to create more opportunities in sport, at a local level, for Canadians with disabilities.

Christos Trifonidis5 competed in his sixth Paralympics in London in shooting, finishing 26th in the 10m and 41st in the 50m air rifle events.

The 66-year-old grandfather of two, who has quadriplegia, said he was only able to train twice a week because of limited facilities in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

He said: “Canada definitely needs to invest to be able to compete. We build it up and tear it down. There is nothing like this [shooting] venue in Canada.

“Hopefully we’ll get some facilities out of [the games]. I can’t go train any time I want.

“Lack of facilities is holding back accessibility for young people. They need to go somewhere where they can see people in action as a disabled person. If it was not for shooting, I would probably be in bed right now. If you’re not occupied, what are you going to do?”

Susan Verdier, technical director at the Shooting Federation of Canada 6, confirmed there was no Canadian facility equivalent to that in London.

In an email statement, she said: “Regrettably, there is a severe shortage of high quality facilities in Canada and shooters are forced to look elsewhere (to the United States in particular) for international standard training and competition opportunities.

“More ranges are being closed than opened across Canada because of anti-gun legislation, environmental and/or public safety concerns making it extremely difficult for shooting athletes to practise their sport.”

Five-time Paralympian and a member of Canada’s gold-medal-winning wheelchair basketball squad in London, Richard Peter7, said even simple equipment at the local level such as disability-friendly horse saddles would improve access to sport.

The resident of Vancouver, BC, who turns 40 years old hours after the closing ceremony of the Paralympics, said in a phone interview: “The [media] coverage is definitely not on par with the Olympics, but it’s getting there. People say, ‘Good luck at the Olympics’ – I’m happy to let people know the difference.

“I didn’t know anything about the Paralympics until a basketball team came to my school. I have done a lot of school talks and visits, and I go to rehab centres in Vancouver and let them know about sport and opportunities.

“There’s a lot more opportunities for anyone with a disability to get out there and try sport.”

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First-time judo Paralympians Tim Rees8 and Tony Walby9, who both have degenerative eye conditions, said they wanted to introduce more visually impaired Canadians to the sport.

Mr Walby, a 39-year veteran of judo who finished seventh in the over-100kg competition in London, said: “I’m a big proponent of judo for the visually impaired. Even if you’re totally blind, you can compete in that top group. When you do that, eyes open.

“I plan to really push visually impaired judo within Judo Canada10. It’s a perfect sport for people who want to do martial arts but are visually impaired.

“My hope is the Paralympics is an inspiration to young people to do sport, no matter what their disability is. Media attention is at an all-time high – now is when the Paralympics is at its most accessible. We need to keep the momentum going.”

The resident of Ottawa, Ontario, added that he would now return to coaching and hoped to one day lead the national squad.

Mr Rees, from Victoria, BC, finished ninth in the up-to-100kg category and said he would like to influence visually impaired youth.

The 32-year-old father of two, who holds a PhD in applied mathematics, said: “I didn’t win a medal but a big positive would be if I could encourage more people to take up the sport.

“I would be happy to go to communicate with blind young people and get them into judo. I hope the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) will try to use the athletes who competed here to get people involved in sport.”

* * *

‘Put athletes on the map’

Canada, which last hosted a summer Paralympics in 1976 in Toronto, ON, with a closing ceremony crowd of just 5000 people11, currently has about 160 swimmers with disabilities across 450 local clubs, according to Paralympic team coach Craig McCord.

One of those swimmers, Brianna Jennett-McNeill12, had top 10 finishes in the S10 100m and 400m freestyle and 100m butterfly at her first games. The 20-year-old, who has a leg length discrepancy with a foot deformity, said she has spoken to schools before and viewed the local level as key to continuing the success of the Paralympics.

Ms Jennett-McNeill, from Russell, ON, said: “I really hope the Paralympics puts a lot more of the disability athletes on the map. They are extraordinary people who carry such an inspiring message. It’s important for people to know we are people too – we just have different abilities.

“I think [the Paralympics] has become more mainstream. Things that are important are local athlete recognition: athletes of the week and disabled athletes of the week, athletes attending Christmas parades, going to places people like to go, people like us promoting the sport. It’s important to have local athletes.”

Morgan Bird13, from Regina, Saskatchewan, said more media attention was needed in Canada and hoped the London games would close the popularity gap between the Olympics and Paralympics.

The swimmer celebrated her 19th birthday during the games and had her best finish of six events with fourth place in the S8 400m freestyle.
Ms Bird, who has cerebral palsy which affects the left side of her body, said: “The support that’s here is amazing. More media attention from TV, radio, newspapers – the more the better.

“I’m hoping to send an inspiring message and tell athletes like myself that if you want to, you can. The key is for younger generations to ask questions and for athletes who have gone to the games to answer them and give feedback.”

‘Bad attitude’ is the only disability

In their competitive and training lives, disability isn’t usually an issue for judo veterans Tim Rees and Tony Walby.

Mr Rees said judo was unique in that visually impaired athletes normally train and compete with those without disabilities and are only separated for the Paralympics.

He said: “I don’t like to be called ‘disabled’ per se, but another word would have the same meaning. I’m just Tim.

“Most people when they hear you have a visual impairment are surprised you’re doing sport at a high level.

“Success is from working hard – there’s nothing magical about it.

“The first time people find out you’re blind, they might be a little concerned, but when you beat them up, they don’t care.”

Mr Walby added that the skill of a fighter is key, and people can be surprised at how easily they hide a visual impairment.

He said: “Our own coach didn’t know I was visually impaired for a long time. For myself and Tim it’s an obstacle but we get around it to have careers, family life – it’s challenging but not impossible. You can get around road blocks. Nothing is unachievable. Nothing can really stop you if you want to put your mind to it.”

Brianna Jennett-McNeill said she wants young people to look at her and ask her questions.

She said: “Making the information open to younger generations, learning new things – if you’re shunning disability and telling people not to look at them that’s not helping. We want to show the world what we are capable of.”

Her teammate Morgan Bird added: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude. We are all the same.”

Alison Korn, press chief for the CPC in London, praised the organisation of the games and the support for athletes, who draw funding from Sport Canada and the Own The Podium14 programme.

Lisa Weagle, communication assistant at Sport Canada, said government funding of Paralympic sport was at “an all-time high level”, with $48 million over the past four years to prepare for London. This year, on top of $12.6m in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, Sport Canada added $6.1m to the CPC to support the Canadian team and for “programs to support Paralympic sport development”.

She added: “The Canadian Paralympic movement took another huge step forward with these games in London.

“We will continue to support our athletes and national sport organisations and work with the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Own the Podium to help our current and future Paralympians achieve medal performances.

“Following the games, a review of Canadian performances will take place across all summer sports and this will help guide future funding decisions.”

All the Canadian athletes thanked the audiences in London for their support and particularly family members who travelled over for the games.

Mr Walby said: “We don’t make it here on our own. My family have been such a phenomenal help. In the last decade my wife has been taking me to all these tournaments. We had a tremendous amount of support to get here.”

Ms Jennett-McNeill said she felt she was “living in a fantasy land” after the experience of the Paralympics.

“I always wanted to do distance running when I was younger, but I couldn’t so I didn’t try,” she said. “But swimming really works for me and I love it. Whether you have the facilities or not, then you find ways to do it.

“I had a dream as a kid and I achieved it. I have never achieved something bigger than this. It feels amazing to say I have achieved my biggest goal. I can share with people. I can proudly say I represented Canada at the Paralympic Games.”

Ms Bird added: “It’s the biggest meet you’re ever going to be in. I’m going to come out of London with the best memories of my life.”

UPDATE: Mr Walby’s age has been corrected from 31 to 39.


No relevant issues on principles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 or 10.
6. A duty to openness: Except where noted, athletes were interviewed in person outside or inside the Olympic Park. The press office of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) granted permission for photos of the athletes interviewed and general ones of the park to be taken.
11. Promote responsible debate and mediation: Interviewees cited need for a legacy from the Paralympics and encouraged public interest in disabled sport and accessibility.


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