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Five to watch: Canada boasts Paralympic stars on the ice and snow


The dust has barely settled on the Tokyo Paralympics, and the Winter Paralympics in Beijing are just 50 days from opening.

The Canadian team captured 28 medals -- eight gold, four silver and 16 bronze -- four years ago at the Pyeongchang Paralympics, and hopes to improve on that number when the Games open on March 4. 

COVID-19 is a factor, as Canada has faced tighter restrictions to competing and training than many other countries, which was evident in the 21 medals Canada won at the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, eight less than five years earlier in Brazil.

Still, Canadian winter Paralympians have returned to competition with a bang, laying down some excellent results, a tantalizing glimpse at the team's medal potential. Here are five athletes to watch:

Brian McKeever, Para Nordic Skiing

With his first medal in Pyeongchang four years ago, a gold in the 20-kilometre cross-country ski race, the 42-year-old from Canmore, Alta., became the most decorated Winter Paralympian in Canadian history, passing the late Lana Spreeman. McKeever, who is visually impaired, went on to capture three more medals in South Korea, and has a whopping 13 gold, two silver and two bronze over five Paralympics.

McKeever, who carried Canada's flag into the opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang, announced recently that Beijing will be his final Paralympic appearance.


Brittany Hudak, Para Nordic Skiing

The 28-year-old from Prince Albert, Sask., raced to five medals -- four of them gold -- at a Nordic World Cup last month in Canmore, Alta., proving she's a runaway favourite for the podium in Beijing. 

Hudak, who was born without the lower part of her left arm and grew up competing in cross-country running and track and field, made her Paralympic debut in 2014 in Sochi after just two years in the sport, and four years later, won bronze in the 12.5-kilometre cross-country ski race.

Hudak and Canada's Para nordic team had intended to compete at the inaugural World Para Snow Sports Championships that are currently on in Lillehammer, but recently announced they'd stay home and train in an effort to avoid contracting COVID-19. 


Mark Arendz, Para Nordic Skiing

The 31-year-old from Hartsville, P.E.I., was Canada's flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies in South Korea after racing to a record-six medals in Nordic skiing and biathlon, including one gold in the 15-kilometre standing biathlon. It was the most medals won in a single winter Paralympics by a Canadian.

Arendz, who lost his left arm in a grain auger when he was seven years old and has been skiing since the age of five, looks to pad his medal total, despite coming off a season of very few competitions.

"This time of year, I would be reflecting upon the recently concluded season," Arendz wrote on his website at the end of last season. "This year is different. Can I end a season that may have never truly begun? How do you define what a season is? I went through the Winter season, but was it a competitive season?"

Arendz said that despite the challenges of the "once-in-a-lifetime" year, he takes a lot of confidence into this season after working on elements of his racing that he had little time to in previous seasons.


Mollie Jepsen, Para-Alpine Skiing

Nearly two years after she'd competed in a World Cup event, the 22-year-old from West Vancouver, B.C., returned to the circuit with a vengeance, climbing the podium in each of her first six races, including two victories.

"At the start of the season, I tried really hard to have low expectations, but I think at times that can be hard after having such a good 2020 season prior to the COVID-19 pandemic," Jepsen said after podium finish No. 4 last month. "I'm stoked on the rest of the season and I'm going to keep pushing the limits."

Jepsen, who was born missing fingers on her left hand, captured four medals at the Pyeongchang Paralympics, including a gold in the Super Combined standing event, and should be a medal threat for all of her races in Beijing. Managing fatigue will be one of her top tasks.  

On top of most of the past two competitive seasons wiped out by the pandemic, Jepsen also missed a season after being diagnosed with Chrohn's disease following the 2018 Paras. 


Tyler McGregor, Para Hockey

The 27-year-old from Forest, Ont., is the captain of Canada's Para-hockey team, and is looking for a medal upgrade after the Canadians won silver in 2018 in Pyeongchang, losing to the Americans in overtime in a heartbreaking final.

Canada's hockey team took home bronze from Sochi four years earlier.

McGregor, who grew up 400 metres from his neighbourhood rink, was a top Triple-A player and heading into his OHL draft year when he was diagnosed with cancer. His leg was amputated the same day of the OHL draft. 

In a first-person piece he wrote for Hockey Canada, McGregor called the game: "My obsession. It’s the oxygen I breathe. And in the darkest and loneliest moments of my life, it was my lifeline. My guiding light. It was something to believe in."

McGregor made his Canadian Para team debut in 2012. 

Canada's stiffest test in Beijing should again come from the Americans, who beat Canada for gold at the world championships last summer. The Canadians recently split a two-game exhibition series against their rivals.

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

The Canadian Press

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