Five Canadian Paralympic storylines to watch

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 Pamela LeJean (Halifax, N.S.) is expected to challenge for a F53 shot put gold medal at the Summer Paralympic Games  in Rio. 

One clear takeaway from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics is this global multi-sports festival —wrapping up on Sunday night — has been chock-full of great stories featuring Canadian athletes.

It is a safe bet more captivating sporting tales of victory, defeat, perseverance and sportsmanship will be forged by Canadian athletes over the course of the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio.

Here is Report on Rio’s list of five storylines for Canadians to track during the Games that begin on Sept. 7 and wrap up on Sept. 18:

1. Is Canada’s track and field team poised for a big rebound in the medal count?

After a dominant performance at the 2008 Beijing Games that saw Canada earn 10 top-of-the-podium track and field finishes, this country only captured a single gold medal — Michelle Stilwell in T52 wheelchair racing — four years later in London.

On paper,  the 24-member Canadian track and field team does appear positioned to bounce back to their 2008 form because there are multiple athletes on this team being tipped as serious gold medal contenders:

  • Brent Lakatos is the no.1 ranked T53 wheelchair racer in the world for the 100-metre and 200-metre distances, and he has also captured multiple international titles in 400-metre and 800-metre races over the past four years.
  • Canada’s T53/T54 4X400  wheelchair racing relay team featuring Lakatos, Curtis Thom, Tristan Smyth and Alexandre Dupont finished first at the IPC Grand Prix at Notwill, Switzerland back in May. The Canadians also managed a first place finish at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France.
  • Stilwell could defend her T52 title as she occupies the top spot for her classification in the international rankings heading into Rio. She also won gold in the 100-metre sprint at the 2015  Parapan American Games in Toronto.
  • Newcomer Guillaume Ouellet is the reigning world champion for the T13 5000-metre run, and he won Parapan Ams gold in the 1500.
  • Pamela LeJean, another first-time Paralympian, can contend for a shot put gold as her throw of 4.48 metres in Halifax at the 2016 Aileen Meagher International Track Classic back in June is the best of any F53 thrower in 2016.

Read Quinton Amundson’s feature story about how Brent Lakatos has ascended to the top of T53 wheelchair racing.  

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Canada’s wheelchair rugby team is ranked first overall in the world.

2. Will the Canadian wheelchair rugby team complete unfinished business in Rio?

Canada has long been a powerhouse nation in the sport of wheelchair rugby, which is not a surprise considering this country invented the game back in the ’70s (originally called “murderball”).

A world championship title in 2002 and a Parapan Ams gold in 2015 are among the impressive on-court achievements attained the Canadian squad over the years.

Paralympic gold, however, has always eluded this team’s grasp. Canada has come close, achingly so, to reaching the top of the heap at the Summer Games with silver medal finishes in 1996, 2004 and 2012. The 2004 setback was the toughest blow as the Canadians lost to New Zealand by a mere two points, 31-29.

The 12-member Paralympic team named on June 6 does have a strong chance at ending the drought considering they are the top ranked wheelchair rugby outfit in the world.

Another reason to be optimistic about Canada’s chances is Zak Madell (Okotoks, Alta.), who is arguably the best player in the world. The 22-year-old was the MVP of the 2014 World Championships in Denmark.

If this team wins, Miranda Biletski (Victoria, B.C.) will become the first woman  to ever to win a wheelchair rugby gold medal.

Read Ciaran Breen’s feature piece about Miranda Biletski’s desire to make her mark in 2016 after missing the entire 2015 season.

3. Who will star for Canada in the water?

Aurélie Rivard all smiles after winning the 200-m Individual Medley at the Canadian Paralympic trials at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre on Thursday night.
Aurélie Rivard won seven gold medals at the Parapan Ams last year. Photo credit: Ciaran Breen/Report on Rio

Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. native Aurélie Rivard, 20, has an excellent opportunity to add a lot of medals to her mantel considering her performance at international competitions in 2015.

Swimming Canada’s 2014 and 2015  female para-swimmer of the year collected an astonishing seven gold medals at the Parapan Ams, and two gold and two silver medals at the IPC Swimming World Championships. She likely has the best chance of winning Paralympic gold in the 50-metre, 100-metre and 400-metre freestyle swims. She attained first place  in the  50 and 400 at both the Parapan Ams and world championships, while her gold-medal 100-metre swim in Toronto made her  the current world record holder (1:07.22).

Nineteen time Paralympics medalist Benoit Huot will also command attention as he endeavours to build upon to his sterling aquatic legacy. Huot, a resident of Longueuil, Que., perhaps has the best opportunity to earn the 10th gold medal of his Paralympic career in either the  200-metre individual medley or the 100-metre backstroke as he is ranked within the world’s top three for both those swims.

4. How will Canada fare in the two new Paralympic competitions?

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Christine Gauthier has won five world paracanoe championships.

It is a realistic possibility that Canada will find a way onto the podium for both paracanoe and para-triathlon this September.

Christine Gauthier (Dorval, Que.) has a great opportunity to medal in Rio as she has stroked her way to five world paracanoe championships. She will race in the K-1 200-metre legs, trunk and arms event.  

Read Braydon Holmyard’s feature story of how Gauthier battled through injury to lock down her spot in Rio. 

Nineteen-year-old Stefan Daniel (Victoria, B.C.) is considered  a co-favourite to win the first ever Paralympic para-triathlon race for PT4 male athletes alongside Germany’s Martin Schulz. While Daniel is second in the world rankings behind the 25-year-old German, the Canadian is the reigning International Triathlon Union World Grand final champion.

5. Who are some darkhorse medal hopefuls for Canada?

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Eric Bussiere competes at the 2015 Parapan Ams in Toronto.

Can Eric Bussière of Verchères, Que. shock the boccia world again?  The 30-year-old entered the World Open in Povoa, Portugal in June as the 19th ranked BC3 player in the world but found a way to elevate his game to new heights in order to net an individual silver medal. A tournament run of this ilk will undoubtedly give him a lot of confidence heading into Rio.

Also pay attention to Canada’s table tennis Paralympian Stephanie Chan. While she is 10th in C7 world rankings, she did win gold at the Parapan Ams last year. Whatever happens, it will be remarkable to watch this 59-year-old making her Games debut.

 


Photo credit: Canadian Paralympic Committee

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