Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mark's Paralympic Adventures

The wait is over

The Guardian

For the past three years I have dreamed of 10 days in March.

For those three years I would go out every day to train or compete with a goal to get better or to have more experience, so I could be the best I could be for those 10 days.

I woke up and every morning for those years I asked myself ‘what do I have to do today to obtain my goals’ during those 10 days.

On the evening before I left for Vancouver I thought 'wow'. The Games had felt so far away for so long and then it hit me, the next time I would wake up I would only be hours from traveling to the 2010 Winter Paralympics.

During the two weeks the Olympics had been on I had watched and followed it very closely. t truly amazed me the power that sport can have on a single person, a team, or a country.

I didn’t just watch only a few sports I found myself watching every sport. Sure I had a greater passion, and could almost recite the entire event schedule for cross country and biathlon, but I was watching other sports.

One night I thought to myself, ‘it’s a Saturday night and I’m at home watching pairs ice dance’. I couldn’t help it. I wanted to watch and cheer on Team Canada.

I stood up and sang O Canada every time it was played. I took a moment of silence with Joannie Rochette at the end of her routine. I yelled at the sweepers on Kevin Martin’s rink. I cheered with the crowd for every shot J.P. LeGuellec hit. My heart was beating as fast as Devon Kershaw’s was in that Sprint finish at the end of the 50-kilometre.

And going back to my heritage I even swore in Dutch alongside Sven Kramer after the 10,000-metre.

I saw friends reach new heights; personal bests come agonizingly close and not close at all. I felt a greater attraction to these Games then I had ever before, whether it was because they were in Canada or because I knew what all those athletes had gone through to get there.

Either way, I saw that Canadians enjoyed themselves and I believe we all became hungry for more.

At 7:10 a.m. on the eighth of March, my Paralympic experience began.

We drove down to the airport in Calgary to catch our flight to Vancouver. As we came off the plane I had my first encounter with the volunteers (or smurfs because of their bright blue jackets and toques and probably because their smiles never faded). They were so friendly you could ask them anything and they would have the answer or would find it for you.

We had our accreditations activated at the airport; during the Paralympics your accreditation has more power than your passport does. The only thing you can do that you do not need your accreditation is sleep.

We headed to the conveyor belt to make sure that the smurfs had collected all of our bags and onto the bus. After a two-hour drive up the Sea-to-Sky highway we turned right at Function Junction just before Whistler and entered the Whistler Paralympic village.

We passed through metal detectors and had all our bags scanned - airport style. We also had to check in our air rifles, and were not allowed to have them in our rooms due to security concerns.

Our next stop was our rooms in the athlete’s village. Awaiting our arrival were the clothing packages from Hbc. We were urged to try on all the clothing to ensure that it fit, my shirts all fit but my pants were gigantic. I could fit into just one pant leg.

After getting the super-sized clothing issue resolved, my next concern was food!

The dining centre was a huge tent, but it had carpeted floors so it was pretty fancy. The first thing you notice is the McDonalds, the athlete’s perfect recovery food. Then there was the market, which contained a salad bar, fresh fruit, desserts, cold cuts, breads, cereals and dairy. Around the central market were the food stations. A pasta stand, pizza (always get the fresh slices), and a made-to-order stir-fry station, and Asian food (rice and stir-fry) the last two stations were a grill and a continental cuisine area.

The food was great, well prepared and there were plenty of choices. The favorites had to be the made-to-order stir fry and continental cuisine but a close second with McDonalds (as recovery or celebration of the race, whatever sounds better to you).

The next few days were a blur. We trained every day, doing some of the last minute tuning to our fitness so that come March 13 we were ready to go. I began testing my skis to narrow the choices down so that on the morning of the race I would only be testing two pairs to decide which I would race on.

Then it came, March 12, 2010. I had an easy work out in the morning, pretty much just to get out and get the blood flowing, some last minute testing on the changing conditions.

Around noon the majority of the team boarded some buses and headed down from Whistler to Vancouver to be in the opening ceremonies. I choose not to attend as I wanted to focus on the biathlon pursuit that was the next day. The best guess at when the athletes from the opening ceremonies could return to the village in Whistler was after midnight. I had to be on the bus up to the race site by 8:30 a.m. the next morning. I watched the ceremonies live from the Canadian athlete’s lounge in the village. It was something else though to see that there was not a seat to be found in BC Place. It was an awesome opening ceremonies (in my opinion better then the Olympic opening, because it involved youth, the future of the Olympic and Paralympic movements. I have nothing against Wayne Gretzky but I thought it had a much greater impact to have a kid light the Paralympic cauldron). I stayed in the moment and was not thinking about what I would accomplish the next day.

At 10:31:30.1 a.m. PST of March 13, I took my first step as a Paralympian.

The first race was the biathlon pursuit. I had very good skis; I was focused on the moment and skiing very well.

I was a little unnerved in the first bout of shooting missing my first two shots. I went out hard trying to make up some of the time that I had just lost with the shooting. I came in the range for the second shooting. I guess I was on the big screen because when I hit my first target there was a sudden uproar from the crowd. I had to take a fraction of a second to absorb that moment.

I continued my shooting hitting the target and getting a huge reaction from the stands. I hit the last shot, hitting all five targets. I thought the crowd had yelled loud before, but when I hit that last target it was thunderous. That pushed me even harder, I gave anything I had left and was brought to the finish line again by a thunderous roar. Beside the two early misses I finished seventh and had qualified to the final that afternoon.

I stuck with the same skis as I had raced on in the morning for the final. My first lap of skiing was awesome, I was on fire. I had a good shooting, missing one target and completed the penalty loop in no time. Back on course I was really going for it and had caught the eventual silver medalist.

The race quickly deteriorated during my second bout of shooting. I missed three shots, which put me out of the running. I skied around that penalty loop as fast as I could and quickly got back on course and managed to pick up two spots before reaching the finish line of my first Paralympic race day. I ended up in seventh, a really strong result considering I missed four shots. I was skiing incredibly well.

I now had a three-day break from competing because I was skipping the 20-kilometre race on Monday. I took Sunday very easy to recover from Saturday’s race.

On Monday I went out onto the recreational trails in the Callaghan Valley. It turned out to be one of the best skis I have ever had.

My grip was incredible, the trail was awesome with rolling terrain, but a few fun and entertaining downhill sections. I was out there for over two hours and I enjoyed every minute of it. That ski gave me an opportunity to get over the emotions of the first race and to physically and mentally prepare for the next race.

The biathlon individual was the same story. My skiing held me in contention with the top spots, but on the range I struggled hitting only 11 of the 20 targets and so adding nine minutes of penalty time to my ski time. I wanted a good result.

Now looking back I probably wanted too much and could not get into my shooting groove. I was still pleased and proud of both biathlon events.

But I was also a little relieved that the remaining races did not involve shooting so I could just rely on what seemed to be in great form and that was my skiing and fitness. To add to my experience, I broke my pole - it would be my first pole I broke while racing.

Well, I didn’t break it, the guy behind me stepped on the end of my pole splitting it into two. The worst of this was that I didn’t have a spare close by. I yelled for a coach to radio ahead to have the pole ready but he mis-communicated where I was. I was forced to climb the steepest hill on the course without a pole in my last lap of five. That hurt so much, but most of that pain was me because even with breaking the pole I refused to allow the guy behind me (the one that broke the pole) to pass. The other coach with my spare had run up a hill and just slipped through a break in the fence and handed it to me as I skied by.


Fun, poles and heroes

The Guardian

In order to race well you have to have some time where you just relax, have some fun and take your mind away from the skiing or the snow. Team Canada had an opportunity to do just that by hanging out with Rick Mercer, as he was filming for his March 23 episode.

In the morning he had gone out skiing with Brian and Robin McKeever. He tried to guide Brian but that didn’t work so well. So they took another approach and had Brian (who is the blind one) guide Rick along some trails in the Callaghan Valley.

He then joined the para-nordic team back at the athlete’s village for lunch in the food tent, sharing stories and laughs. To wrap up his day he spent some time interviewing members of the team in the athlete’s lounge as we watched some fellow Canadians compete in the para-alpine events that afternoon. This was a great stress reliever and a chance to allow our clothes to dry out a little.

In good B.C. fashion, the morning’s training had been highlighted by the fact that I would have stayed drier had I simply jumped into a swimming pool. No joke! It was raining so hard that anything you did didn’t help you stay dry. I had a very good rain resistant suit on along with a plastic poncho over top, but still I got soaked. It took me almost a full day to dry my gloves and still in the morning threw them into the dryer for an extra 20 minutes. Our coaches were holding umbrellas in the range, but I don’t think it helped with anything.

My third race was the 10-kilometre cross-country race. In Vancouver this race was classic. The conditions were challenging. Freezing temperatures along with the heavy down pour from the previous two days meant the race course had been transformed into a Crashed Ice event (the slightly crazy Quebec event were they cover a hill with ice and obstacles and a bunch of guys in hockey gear tumble down, with the fastest winning).

Even with the 10 a.m. start the snow (or I should say ice) held firm and made keeping and edge for turning very difficult. It was fun though. The race came down to who had the fastest first lap, without burning up on the climbs and had the most grip wax left for the second lap.

I may have been a little cautious on my first lap, trying to conserve my grip wax for the second lap.

I was about to finish the first lap when the unthinkable happened. I broke my pole again. In eight years of racing I had never broken a pole now I had had broken two in two races. A Korean coach handed me a spare (shorter then I usually use) within a few metres of me breaking my pole. I used this one for the remaining 500 metres before going through the stadium and picking up my proper spare from a wax tech.

I was now forced to turn up the heat and really fight to make up for both the slow first lap and breaking the pole. One of the heavy favorites caught me with four-kilometres left. I stayed with him; he never got further then 10 metres ahead of me.

To my extreme surprise I was catching and passing him on the flats, which he is one of the strongest at. He had a bad pair of boards and mine were only getting better. We came into the last climb, I caught up again and I’m not sure how or why, kept going right by him, and left him for dead.

He still finished higher than I did, but I had the satisfaction of beating him to the line. Next step, I’ll beat him to the finish line and in the final results.

I was very happy with that race. I skied very well and executed my race plan quite well. For me there is nothing I regret about that race.

That evening the team went to the Whistler Awards Plaza to cheer for our two medal winners from the day: Brian and Robin McKeever (gold) and Colette Bourgonje (bronze).

I was always surprised at the size of the crowds at every one of the award ceremonies. The crowd cheered on athletes from every country, but they saved a little extra every time there was a Canadian on the podium.

To look up and see two teammates up on the podium, it inspired me. I wanted to be up there and I will. But this young grasshopper must have patience.

I came to these Games to gain experience. I wanted to learn how I reacted to the whole Games experience, to know what to expect. To deliver the performance on demand that is required at a Games. If a result would have been there that would be incredible, but not what I came to do. I saw the work that both of those medal winners had put in over the past four years. Though at the same time it was not only the past four years that brought them to that podium.

In Colette’s case, this was her sixth (yes sixth) Winter Paralympics (plus three Summer Games). Her journey has been ongoing for some time. The stories and experiences that she has had over the years, I can only dream of right now.

One day I’ll look back and I can only hope that I can pass on the inspiration she gave to me onto someone else.

Thanks Colette!


The Best Ever

The Guardian

The next day was the last day without a race. Saturday would be the first of the last two days of racing and of the 2010 Paralympics.

The training for the day was an easy hour with a focus on three things: one, to recover from yesterday’s race; second, to learn and study the course that was to be my course for tomorrow’s relay: lastly to practice the 180 degree corner that would be used in the Sprint race on Sunday.

For me to relax the best medicine is to have some fun, so that is what I did that morning. Tried a few tricks, but of course making sure I didn’t get hurt.

The final stretch was upon us. We had two races in two days and at the end of that these Games would come to a close.

For the first time I can remember the Canadian men would field a relay team. Because of the way a men’s relay works, our lead was Sebastien Fortier (a new sit-skier from Quebec, and my roommate), Tyler Mosher (a LW3 from right here in Whistler) and I was the anchor.

The relay is the only race where we have a true mass start. When the gun went off all eight sit-skiers took off. This is something to watch, it is the only chance the spectators get to see the differences between the classes of sit-skiers.

I started in eighth position almost two minutes back from seventh place. wasn’t even thinking of catching the guy ahead or realized how far he was ahead.

As I started my leg, my goal was to get the fastest time of my leg. I got right into it and was really hammering out of the stadium. I almost reached the top of the first climb and saw the leaders going back down the hill into the stadium finishing their first lap. Sure I would have loved to be right there fighting for the medals, but I was focused on what I wanted to do.

I was skiing really well. I was on fire. I skied smooth and relaxed and at the same time I was powerful. I felt agile and controlled even though I was taking the corners hard and faster then I had ever done.

I skied into the stadium and saw the seventh place skier still quite a bit ahead. This is where I started thinking I could close the gap and take in a spot. I was dead last, there was really no reason to cheer, but as I skied around the corner and right in front of the stands, an incredible roar began. This pushed me even faster.

I climbed that first hill as hard as I could muster. At the bottom a coach yelled I was 45 seconds back. After pushing over that hill and beginning the next climb, the next coach yelled I was only 30 seconds back. I had him in my sights and I was hungry! The next climb was where I made my move. I was right on his tail at the top of the second last climb. I got into the lowest tuck I could and caught right up to him, passed and jump right in front of him so that I got the line I wanted in the upcoming s-turn.

I had never gone into this corner has fast as I did that time. Came out of the corner hard and was right into putting some more ground between me and the now last place. He tried to come back charging hard but had nothing left. Everything I had left I used to climb the remaining hill and it was into the stadium. The crowd again brought me home in an incredible fashion.

As I crossed the line, I knew that was my best race. I was ecstatic, I was so proud of that race and I even got to move the team up a spot.

I later learned it was the best ever finish for a Canadian men’s relay team. The only downside of putting everything out on the line was that I was now one hurting puppy. I did a 10-minute cool down on my skis, and then quickly hopped onto a bus to head back to the athlete’s village.

Once I was back in the village I got into the hot-cold tubs right away. Two minutes in the cold tub (the water was about 6 degrees Celsius) followed by a minute in the hot tub (the water was about 104 degree Fahrenhiet). This cycle was repeated another three times. The cold water is a shock to the system, but it works because afterwards I felt pretty good. A short but effective massage that evening and I was ready to go tomorrow.

The final day of competition was to be the cross-country sprint, which was also classic this year. I knew it was going to be a difficult day.

The first challenge was to qualify. My category had 33 athletes on the list to start that morning with only the top-eight moving on to the semis.

I would start second, which is a good and bad thing. Good, because the race plan was simple; go as hard as I could, balls to the wall, and stay upright and set the time to beat.

The not so good thing was that the next few guys behind me were red group skiers and my time would be knocked down quickly.

But that is something I can’t control. All I had to do was focus on going as hard as I could up the two climbs and along the flatter sections near the end of the course.

And that was what I did. I was extremely pleased with that race. I did everything I could it was now up to the rest of the field to determine where I finished.

I set the time to beat by over 20 seconds when I crossed the finish line. I only held the lead until the next skier came in. This repeated several times and I was now in eighth (the bubble spot as we call it). If there was a chance that I qualified, I had to be ready (I held onto the eighth spot for quite a while).

I went to cool down and prepare for the next round of sprinting. When I came back though, it wasn’t to be.

One of the last skiers to go had slipped into the top-eight and pushed me into ninth. I was the first not to qualify.

Even though I had not moved on I was so happy with that race. I had finally put together two great races, but, of course, in the last two days here in the Callaghan Valley (and hadn’t broken a pole in the last two races either).

My Paralympics were over. Wait, let me rephrase that: my 2010 Paralympics were over.

There still remained a few things to be done before everything could come to a close. My skis and poles had to be packed up, the wax cabins had to be cleaned up, all the gear had to be organized into where it was heading, I had to get cleaned up and dressed for the closing ceremony and, of course, food had to be eaten.

We did take a pause during our clean up to open a bottle of champagne and had a toast to a very successful Paralympics. I got back to the athlete’s village with enough time to change, shower and eat an eight-minute “lunch” before I had to board the bus to go to the closing ceremony.

The closing ceremony was awesome. Beside the downpour while all the athletes were waiting to parade in, everything went smooth and it was an enjoyable experience.

I must say that the sand artist during the Sochi 2014 presentation was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. As I watched the Paralympic flame fade out there was a sense of closure on these Games. And then it was all over.

The 2010 Paralympics have been an incredible 10 days (“the best ever” according to Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee).

There are no words that can completely describe everything I experienced there. The stories, the triumphs, the crashes and heartbreaks and the broken poles these are all part of the Games.

For me now, I will analyze all aspects of my performances and experiences and figure out what worked and what didn’t. I will begin to plan out the next four years.

What will be my goals, what do I need to work towards and hundreds of other things need to be either answered or planned out over the next little while, as I begin my journey to Sochi 2014.

I would like to take a moment to THANK everyone that supported me over the past few years. I could not be where I am right now without the support I received from each and every one of you.


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