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Dueck: Canada's Paralympic mantra for Beijing is "elevate, motivate, ignite"


Much of Canada had been plunged into another COVID-19 lockdown in the weeks before last summer's Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

And like many Canadians, Tyler McGregor tuned into both Games and found inspiration in the performances of the country's finest summer athletes. 

The 27-year-old captain of Canada's Para-hockey team hopes he and his teammates can in turn inspire others back home when they take the ice in Beijing.

"I was a fan watching Tokyo and it was almost a sense of relief and a break from everything going on," McGregor said. "I think it really does offer a sense of relief from everything that's been going on. And we're so deep into this, I really feel for many people who are really struggling with the effects of this pandemic, and all that it’s caused. 

"I truly believe that Beijing, the performances that athletes will put on at the Olympics first, and then a couple weeks later at the Paralympics, will be inspiring to many Canadians — myself included."

The Paralympics open on March 4, exactly 50 days from Thursday — and the timing is right. 

Canadians could use a break. Two years into the pandemic, Canada is reeling from the Omicron variant fuelling the pandemic's fifth wave. 

Josh Dueck, Canada's Paralympic chef de mission and a three-time Paralympic medallist in skiing, said the team's approach to Beijing is that the Games are about much more than sport.

"The general ethos that we've built for the team is to elevate, motivate, unite," Dueck said. "(Sport) is a light that brings hope in the darkness. And we all need that sort of light, I think that provides a stronger intrinsic motivation to these athletes who are training beyond just medals. This is a great opportunity to do something bigger than ourselves and bigger than sport."

Canada captured 28 medals — eight gold, four silver and 16 bronze — four years ago in Pyeongchang to finish second behind the U.S. in total medals. 

McGregor and Canada's Para-hockey team lost a heartbreaking 2-1 in overtime to the U.S. in overtime that year. He won bronze in 2014 in Sochi, and is "aiming to finish off the collection."

After the pandemic wiped out Canada's Para-hockey schedule for the better part of a year, the Canadians captured silver at the world championships last summer, losing 5-1 to the Americans in the final. But the team rebounded to take one of a two-game exhibition series against their rivals this past fall.

"To be completely honest, this is the most confident I've felt going into a Games," said McGregor, who played Triple-A hockey before losing his left leg to cancer in 2010. "I have so much trust and belief in our group right now. So, feeling pretty confident that we'll be able to leave Beijing with a gold."

Like the Paralympians last summer in Tokyo, however, winter Paralympians share the fear that a major COVID-19 outbreak during the Olympics could see the Paralympics scrapped entirely. 

"I think there is a lot of stress involved right now," said McGregor, who caught COVID-19 on Christmas Day. "The Olympics are coming up sooner than us, they're stressed about positive tests . . . and from a Paralympic perspective, we need everything to move forward without many complications and to ensure the protocols in place are safe enough to make sure the Games go forth without a hitch.

"There is quite a bit of stress that if things don't go as planned (at the Olympics), they can easily just pull the chute on the Paralympics."

The Tokyo Paralympics were held successfully; Canada took home 21 medals. Last summer, however, posed different risks. The fast-spreading Omicron variant had yet to emerge. 

Dueck said following the Olympics could be a positive for the Paralympics. 

"It's an opportunity to see what mitigations work well and then refine that plan as we move into the Paralympics a couple weeks later," said the 40-year-old from Vernon, B.C. "It's a really great opportunity. It's a bigger machine, the Olympic movement, and they go in and they smooth the pathway for us."

Dueck gained global notoriety, appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, when he became the first sit-skier to complete a backflip on snow in 2012. 

The sit-skiing pioneer is also a Hall of Famer and a passionate and sought-after keynote speaker.

The crush of COVID-19 has athletes walking on eggshells, Dueck said, and getting to the Paralympics might prove more difficult than the Games themselves, as positive COVID-19 tests could keep athletes home.

"The advice that I've given (athletes) and that I'll continue to give as it's day to day, is we need to plant our feet on the ground each and every day, and give thanks for the opportunity that we have in front of us," he said. "If we're able to achieve that milestone that we've been working towards for the last four years, then that's going to be an incredible bonus.

"The privilege and opportunity that we have to still focus on sport when we're all very aware, none of us are blind to the fact that the world's on fire, it’s a troubling time . . . so, hopefully that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation will carry the team through." 

The Paralympics, which run through March 14, include five sports: wheelchair curling, Para ice hockey, Para alpine skiing, Para snowboard, and Para nordic ski (biathlon and cross-country skiing).

About 750 athletes from around the world are expected to compete in 82 medal events, which is two more than four years ago in Pyeongchang. 

There are 234 berths open for female athletes, and if they're all filled, it will represent a 76 per cent increase from the 133 women who competed in 2018. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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