The Paralympic Flame burned on an obelisk high over Whistler Village, honoring 600 elite athletes from 44 countries and celebrating the Vancouver, Canada, 2010 Winter Games. Between March 13 and March 23, athletes with disabilities competed in five sports: sledge hockey, wheelchair curling, alpine skiing, cross country skiing and biathlon.
More than a series of sporting events, the Paralympics is a movement toward greater respect, inclusion, and acceptance of people with disabilities. Touting the motto “Spirit in Motion,” the 2010 Games offered fierce competition and some exciting victories. USA’s hard-fought sledge hockey gold medal, the first American biathlon win in history, and a total of 11 medals for USA women alpine skiers were just a few of the Games’ more rousing highlights.
Fog, sleet, and heavy snow plagued the first few days of the Paralympics at Whistler Creekside and Callaghan, causing delays in biathlon, cross country, and alpine skiing. Each skiing event consisted of three sections: sitting, visually impaired, and standing. “The course conditions are really variable,” said US Paralympic Team Coach Ray Watkins. “You have to fight and that’s what our team likes to do. We’re going to come out and fight.”
Skiers in the visually impaired category were accompanied by guides who skied just ahead of them. Both athlete and guide wore helmets with attached microphones and headphones, gear which allowed each guide to scout ahead and describe the course layout, often using words like “bump,” “steep,” and “turn” to inform the competing athlete what lay ahead for him or her on the slope. It was the type of teamwork that relied on a deep trust and connection, as evidenced by the success of double bronze winner Danielle Umstead, who was guided by her husband, Rob, and who took medals in Downhill and Super Combined. Seattle native Mark Bathum took the silver in Downhill with his guide Slater Storey. At the victory podium, individual medals were awarded to guides and athletes alike.
Women in the alpine “sitting” competitions skied outstanding races as well, leading to the accumulation of more USA medals than in any other sport in these Games. Stephani Victor, a filmmaker and actress from California, won gold in Women’s Super Combined, and Alana Nichols, USA’s most decorated athlete in these Paralympics, won gold for both Downhill and Giant Slalom. Victor nabbed two silvers, in Giant Slalom and Slalom, while Nichols won silver in the Super G, as well as bronze in the Super Combined. Laurie Stephens won silver in Downhill.
Two alpine team members this year were military veterans. Heath Calhoun served in the army in Iraq and carried the American flag during the Opening Ceremony at BC Stadium in Vancouver. Chris Devlin-Young, who served in the Coast Guard, medaled four times in previous Paralympics Winter Games. He was the 2008 World Cup champion in the Super G.
Less popular in the US than in other parts of the world, the biathlon draws upon expertise in cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Although the Federation of Russia won 16 medals in the biathlon, it was a former soldier of the Afghan War, Andy Soule from Pearland, Texas, who won the first American medal in the biathlon, in either the Olympics or Paralympics. Soule was also the first American to win any medal at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics. Kelly Undekofler, the other member of the Biathlon team, came in 13th in the women’s standing.
Team USA’s six-member cross-country team, including veteran Sean Halstead, pushed itself to the limit, but was unable to take home a medal. “I didn’t ski fast enough,” said Chris Klebl from Heber City, Utah. “It’s the standard World Cup field that we see every race. Some people obviously stepped it up. Most of the usual contenders were at the top and there were a couple who were faster than they have been recently.”
Monica Bascio from Evergreen, Colorado, was the only American to qualify for semi-finals Sunday and finished fourth in the first two semi-finals. Veterans Sean Halsted, from Euphrata, Washington, and Andy Soule finished 10th and 11th, respectively, in a field of 35 athletes. The Federation of Russia dominated cross-country, winning 22 medals.
ADDITIONAL PARALYMPIC NOTES
Whistler Village, home of the Victory Celebrations and podium, was dedicated to the Paralympians. Shops were filled with Olympic and Paralympic souvenirs. Trees were decorated with delicate white lights, bands played, and wide-screen televisions stood in the village squares, displaying the intricacies of different Games.
Individuals with visual impairments who participated in the biathlon had an array of fascinating technology at their fingertips. When athletes reached the shooting area, their guides handed them headphones which emitted a pitch that increased as the athlete’s aim drew closer to the bull’s eye. After the athlete shot, the guide then took the headphones, handed the skier his poles, and both engaged in the cross-country skiing portion of the race. A standard equalizing system was put into place to account for different disabilities.
Whether athletes at the Games were walking or rolling in chairs, the festive atmosphere that surrounded them emphasized a dedication to the spirit of the Paralympic Games. Between the podium and the ski mountain, a small geodesic dome exhibited “Spirit in Motion,” essentially a mini-museum on disabilities that outlined the history of the Paralympic Games. The Games began as a wheelchair-based sporting series to rehabilitate World War II veterans before eventually expanding to include more athletes, non-military members, and people with a variety of disabilities. By the first Paralympics in 1960, it was no longer required that athletes be soldiers in order to participate.
At this year’s ceremony, three athletes were inducted to Paralympic Hall of Fame, including Christopher Waddell, who was the first paraplegic to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and who has won five golds and four silvers in past Paralympics.
While skiers competed at Whistler and Callaghan, Vancouver was brimming with the Paralympic Spirit. Though the Olympics had ended two weeks before the Paralympics had begun, the enormous cauldron initially lit for the Olympics steadily burned at the waterfront for the duration of the Paralympic Games.
The Paralympic Opening Ceremony at BC Stadium in Vancouver entertained 60,000 spectators and included outstanding performances honoring the 1300 athletes, coaches and guides. Performers with disabilities breakdanced on the their hands, wheelchair users danced in choreography with 10-foot-tall balloons that displayed images of athletes, and flames shot from one of the two stages as a raucous band played. Between songs, poems, and luminous projections, audience members shared teary eyes and the widest of grins.
The Opening Ceremony concluded with the lighting of the Vancouver Paralympics torch, signaling the beginning of the Tenth Winter Paralympic Games. An hour and a half south of Whistler, Vancouver was the site of the week-long round-robin tournaments for wheelchair curling and sledge hockey.
A quiet, almost solemn sport, wheelchair curling pits teams of five against one another as each sends a 42- pound rock down a narrow strip. Unlike other curling, wheelchair curling does not include a “sweeper” who brushes the ice before the rock. Instead, an attendant wipes the rock before it is used in play. Additionally, a person of each gender is required on every team.
Jacqueline Kapinowski from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, was “Lead” on USA’s wheelchair curling team. In her first year of curling, Kapinowski made Team USA and won bronze at the 2008 World Wheelchair Championship in Sursee, Switzerland. Off the ice, Kapinowski is a wheelchair-racing enthusiast who has completed 52 marathons. In addition to being an expert wheelchair curler, Kapinowski hopes to compete in track and field at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
Other members of the US team included the “Skip,” Augusto Perez, USA Curling’s 2008 Male Athlete of the Year, military veteran Patrick McDonald, James Joseph, who competed at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games and in three World Wheelchair championships, and James Pierce, who competed at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games and in three World Wheelchair championships. The Americans, who did well through their first sessions, reached the semi-finals. The wheelchair curling gold went to Canada, the silver to Korea, and the bronze to Sweden.
Though it looks similar to other forms of hockey, sledge hockey firmly attaches each of its players to a metal sled that is balanced on two blades. The sledge hockey player’s stick essentially serves dual functions as a scoring tool and as a propeller, allowing athletes to slip it up and down swiftly as they glide along the ice.
Vying for the gold, sledge hockey players flew across the ice, smashed into plexi-glass walls, and swarmed the goalie while speakers blared the music of Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and even the theme from Green Acres. “The energy is building,” said Andy Yohe, the captain of Team USA. “All the folks in Canada love hockey and it’s exciting just to be able to come and play in that environment.” Yohe, who lost both legs while trying to jump onto a train, is a hockey fanatic and a roller hockey player for the Bettendorf, Iowa Young Guns.
After a grueling week of round-robins, the US faced Japan in the gold medal games. Dodging flying pucks and a dedicated adversary, Team USA secured an astounding victory when goalie Steve Cash completed a total shutout of the opposing team. This brought the US sledge hockey team its second gold medal, a victory made even sweeter for the US team as it occurred on rival Canada’s home turf. Defeated by Japan in an earlier round, Canada’s sledge hockey team came in fourth after Japan and Norway.
At the Closing Ceremony at Whistler, many called this year’s Games the best Winter Paralympics ever. “Many of you will go home as champions,” said John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver organizing committee. “You all go home as winners. You have been remarkable ambassadors of the human spirit.” As Furlong spoke, sparkling flames radiated around the surrounding mountains as skiers carried the final torch and passed it on to the Federation of Russia, which is set to host the next Winter Games in Sochi, 2014.
by Elizabeth Corcoran Murray
photos by Paul Murray