The only returning member of the Canadian Team, Sonja Gaudet, 43, is favoured to win gold at the Vancouver Games. Gaudet, who sustained a spinal injury after falling from a horse six years ago, enjoys diverse sports including basketball, rowing and swimming; she was a natural at wheelchair curling, having earned several top honours, including a gold medal at the 2009 World Championships and the gold in Torino in 2006, where wheelchair curling was first introduced as a Paralympic sport. Now based at the Vernon Curling Club in B.C., Gaudet works to improve accessibility in the community, and hopes to work in the school system once she retires from her athletic career. Married to husband Dan, she has two teenagers, Alysha and Colten.
Robbi Weldon, a visually impaired skiier who hails from Thunder Bay, Ont., got on her first pair of (downhill) skis at age three. As a teenager, she was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a genetic form of macular degeneration; she remained an active participant in several sports, even setting national and world records in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. She has been nordic skiing since 2002, and these are her first Paralympics. Weldon, 34, has two young children, Keegan and Alexander.
Cross-country skiier Brian McKeever wept when he got the news that he’d only just failed to qualify for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the same year, which would have made him the first athlete to do so, reports the Vancouver Sun. Still, big things are expected from the 30-year-old Canmore native, a seven-time Paralympic medalist who was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a form of macular degeneration, soon after beginning university. With just ten per cent of his sight, McKeever also competes in able-bodied competition, inspecting a track and committing it to memory beforehand. He hopes to go on to compete at the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014.
A onetime able-bodied member of the British Columbia Curling Team, Jim Armstrong, a skip, switched to wheelchair curling about three years ago after developing knee and back problems (he’s had about 14 knee surgeries, he says). Armstrong, 59, started curling at age eight; last year, his team won gold at the 2009 World Curling Championships. He’s also the only curler to have won the Ross Harstone Award for Sportsmanship and Ability three times, an award voted on by his fellow curlers. Last year, Jim lost his wife Carleen to cancer. He has three children, Jody, Jayme and Greg.
According to Jody Barber, “Life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent how you respond to it.” Barber, who will be vying for the podium in the Nordic events, was training for a triathlon when she nearly lost her arm in a bike accident in Australia in 2006. Told she would never swim or bike again, the 45-year-old mother of five set two goals: re-learn how to swim and do a half marathon—which she met. Next, Barber, who teaches high school in Smithers, B.C., set her sights on cross-country skiing. Though she says balancing with one pole was “a little awkward at first,” she soon got the hang of it, and before long, was competing on the international stage. After making the national team in 2008, she clinched silver in biathlon pursuit and bronze in cross-country skiing at the world championships in Finland. Despite competing in only three races this season, she’s going into Paralympic competition ranked tenth in the world. She attributes much of her success to her family; her husband, a cross-country coach, will be one of the forerunners at the Paralympics.
One of the world’s top Paralympians, Lauren Woolstencroft is also a driving force behind the scenes at the Vancouver Games. The decorated skier, who has won 50 medals, including eight world cup championships, is also an electrical engineer; her handiwork is helping to light up the mountain venues. Competitive in all five of skiing’s events, Woolstencroft, 28, has been a star of the Para-Alpine team since becoming a member in 1998. Born without legs below the knee and with no arm below the left elbow, the Calgary native started skiing on family trips to Montana at the age of four. Using prostheses for her lower legs and left arm, she competes as a standing skier. Known as much for her drive as her talent, she earned the title of “Golden Girl” when, after taking a nasty fall in the downhill race, she came back to win gold in the super G—her fourth medal of those games.
If his recent entry into IPC World Cup competition is any indication, para-alpine skier Sam Danniels is a serious medal contender. In his first IPC World Cup start during the finals in Whistler last year, the 24-year-old finished an impressive fourth in the sit-ski category. Danniels, who was born in Toronto, Ont., sustained a spinal injury in a mountain bike accident in 2005. A natural athlete, he has quickly progressed in the para-alpine world, volunteering with the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, and teaching others to use a sit-ski. After posting the fastest time during the first downhill training sessions before the Paralympics, he told CTV, “I’m happy I’m alive, I’m happy I made it and the fact that I’m first is just the icing on the cake. I really can’t wait for the real race to happen on Saturday.”
Heading into the Vancouver Games, Viviane Forest has set the bar high. When all is said and done, the 30-year-old Edmonton resident wants to have been on the podium for all five ski events. And if any of those medals are gold, she’ll also have something else to celebrate: being one of the only athletes to win gold at both the summer and winter Paralympics. Forest, who has won two gold medals for goalball, already has an impressive para-alpine record since joining Team Canada in 2008: she won the 2008-09 season overall Crystal Globe in the ladies visual impaired category; took gold medal in super combined in the 2009 IPC World Championships; and won top spot at the 2009 Canadian Para-Alpine Ski Championships in Sun Peaks, BC. Despite having only four per cent vision, she tears down the hill behind her guide at speeds that exceed 100 kilometres per hour.
According to sledge hockey athlete Bradley Bowden, Team Canada’s drive for the podium in Vancouver is “more than a hockey tournament. It’s something that I’m going to tell my children and grandchildren about one day.” Given his past accomplishments, the 26-year-old, who lives in Orton, Ont., is justified in expecting greatness. Since joining the national sledge hockey team in 1999, Bowden, who has Sacral Agenesis, a condition similar to Spina Bifida, has been a driving force behind several world championships, and a gold medal victory in Salt Lake City. He’s also a decorated wheelchair basketball player, picking up gold in Athens in 2004, and silver at the Para-Panamerican Games in Rio in 2007.
10 Paralympians to watch
Canada's medal hopefuls bring drive, determination to Vancouver Games