By Rob Snoek
Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013 | 01:27 PM
Biathlon world champion Mark Arendz is part of the young wave of athletes boosting Canada's medal hopes for the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games. (Hannah Johnston/Getty Images)
The next generation of Canadian Paralympic athletes has arrived and seems ready to carry the torch in Sochi in 2014.Three years ago in Vancouver, Brian McKeever of Canmore, Alta., came within a coach's decision of a feat that no Canadian had ever accomplished: competing in both the Olympic Winter Games and the Paralympic Winter Games.
The cross-country skiing champion, who has Stargardt's disease and is legally blind, qualified as a member of the Canadian Olympic team and was prepared to race. But he was denied that opportunity when another skier, who was deemed to be a better medal contender, was chosen by the Canadian coaching staff to replace him in the 50-km marathon event.
Disappointed but undaunted, McKeever raced a few weeks later in the Vancouver Paralympics and won gold in the sprint, the 10-km classical and the 20-km freestyle events, giving him 10 Paralympic medals in his prolific career.
The 33-year-old veteran is still at it and, with the help of his guide Erik Carleton, he just won gold in the sprint and the 20-km skate-ski events at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic world championships in Solleftea, Sweden. He will again be among the potential stars for Canada in Sochi in 2014.
Even better news for Canada's cross-country team, and for other sports as well, is that the next generation has arrived and seems ready to carry the torch.
Arendz, Williamson shine at worlds
Mark Arendz, the pride of Springton, P.E.I., took home a gold and two bronze medals in biathlon (a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting) from those same Nordic world championships in Sweden. Arendz is an arm amputee who races cross-country with just one ski pole and shoots a rifle with pinpoint accuracy. He just celebrated his 23rd birthday and represents a younger wave of athletes who are helping to give Canada greater medal-winning potential in 2014.
Alpine ski racer Chris Williamson, a 40-year-old from Markham, Ont., seems to be as fast and as fit as ever and managed to recover from injury to win world championship gold in February as well. Williamson, working with guide Robin Femy, was the best among visually impaired skiers in the super-combined discipline, which pairs a super-G with a slalom, at the IPC alpine world championships in La Molina, Spain. It was one of four medals for Williamson and part of a 14-medal haul for Canada. That was the highest total of any nation, with France next at 12 medals.
Other veterans who had strong alpine results were Kimberly Joines from Rossland, B.C., who did not compete in 2010 at the Paralympics because of injury. In La Molina, she made four trips to the podium (two silver, two bronze), and Edmonton's Viviane Forest, with her guide Chloe Lauzon-Gauthier, gathered in two bronze medals.
Among the up-and-comers for Canada in Spain was 15-year-old Mac Marcoux of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., who along with his brother-guide Billy Joe took bronze in the giant slalom, and 18-year-old Alexandre Starker of Calgary, who grabbed three bronze medals.
Success on the ice
Billy Bridges has been shining with Canada's sledge hockey team for years, but his excellence does not seem to be tapering. In January, in a three-game series against Norway, the Summerside, P.E.I., native piled up 14 points, including an incredible three-goal, six-assist game. Fellow veterans like Brad Bowden (Orton, Ont.), captain Greg Westlake (Oakville, Ont.), and Adam Dixon (Midland, Ont.) should help Canada to a top-five result at next month's world championships, which will qualify the team automatically for Sochi.
Newcomers are also making their presence felt on the sledge hockey team. New players had better be ready to contribute, because Canada's current roster includes 10 players who were not part of the team at Vancouver 2010. Brampton, Ont., native Karl Ludwig scored his first national-team goal in that series against Norway and followed it up with his first hat trick. Edmonton's Kieran Block played four full seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League before being injured in a cliff jumping accident and now brings an elite able-bodied hockey background into the sledge hockey environment. The team, now under the strong leadership of Hockey Canada, is well organized and well funded and seems poised to be in the medal hunt in Sochi.
Wheelchair curling might be the one winter sport where older veterans will dominate the Canadian narrative. Canada's entry will travel to Sochi as the favourites. Jim Armstrong, originally from Richmond, B.C., but now living in Cambridge, Ont., is expected to be the skip. He is the reigning Paralympic champion and his rink of Dennis Thiessen (third), Ina Forrest (second), Sonja Gaudet (lead) and alternate Mark Ideson just won the world championship that was staged in Sochi as a test event for the Paralympics. The 62-year-old Armstrong lost in the 1 vs. 2 Page playoff against Sweden but made good on his second chance with a 6-5 come-from-behind win over Sweden in the gold-medal game.
The "second chance" theme seems to run strong in Jim Armstrong's story. The six-time Brier participant as an able-bodied curler started using a wheelchair after a car accident in 2003. He guided Canada to wheelchair curling gold at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, but soon a series of events resulted in his pleading guilty to trafficking counterfeit erectile dysfunction drugs across the U.S.-Canada border and agreeing to pay a $30,000 fine. His son was sentenced to a year in jail in relation to the offense.
In January of 2012, on the eve of the world championships, Armstrong tested positive for the drug Tamoxifen and was given an 18-month suspension. However, he argued successfully that he had inadvertently taken the medication that was left over from his late wife, who had battled breast cancer before she died in 2009. In September of 2012, after a hearing with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the 18-month doping suspension was reduced to six months and he was allowed to resume his curling career. The decision noted "the accidental nature of the offence and the obvious lack of benefits to Armstrong from ingesting the Tamoxifen."
Canada targets top 3
The seemingly indomitable Armstrong is expected to be a key member of Canada's 2014 team, which will include approximately 50 athletes and will compete in all five sports on the winter program: alpine skiing (which includes snowboard), biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
The Black Sea resort area of Sochi will host almost 700 athletes from as many as 45 countries in the XI edition of the Paralympic Winter Games. The Games will be broadcast in more countries than ever before, thanks to recently announced deals with U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 and the European Broadcasting Union.
Canada has targeted a top-three finish in the medal standings, which would match the success of Vancouver 2010. Canadian team chef de mission Ozzie Sawicki said, "There is a certain humbleness to the Canadian group, but they are not afraid to say, 'I'm the best in the world.'"
Canada's best, young and old, have exactly one year to prepare to prove that statement.