Matt Hallat and Caleb Brousseau have taken very different paths to make it to Sochi, where they'll both be eyeing spots on the alpine podium when the Paralympic Winter Games get underway.
During the 2010 Paralympics, Hallat was making his second trip to the Games, and racing on his home hill in Whistler.
"I was a spectator," the 25-year-old said Tuesday, March 4 from Sochi. "I had just learned how to ski the year before that in a sit-ski.
"I got to watch the Games, get to know some of the athletes at the time, so I decided to keep pushing it hard at that time, got on the prospect team and it's been uphill from there."
Hallat and Brousseau's memories of 2010 differ, but the two Sea to Sky residents on the Canadian para-alpine team share the same goal of medal finishes when their races begin on Saturday, March 8.
Now one of the veteran members of the team, 29-year-old Hallat said seeing teammates heading to the Paralympics for a first time has made him reflect on his last two appearances at the Games.
"The first one, I was super excited and it was a lifetime achievement in a way at that point. I had high hopes, but I probably didn't have the talent or the training to back it up," he said. "Whistler, at home, obviously there was a lot that went with it. Huge support, a huge build-up and it was right across the street from where I was living."
Following the 2010 Games, where he notched a best result of 11th in downhill, Hallat said he went through a low point, questioning whether or not he wanted to continue a skiing career.
"At the end of the day, my answer was yes, and it's exciting to have gone through that low and to learn from it," said Hallat, a standing skier who had his right leg amputated below the knee due to Ewing's Sarcoma, "It gave skiing perspective in the rest of my life. I ended up getting married last summer, and that definitely changes perspective, too.
"Skiing was my No. 1 for a long, long time, and everything hinged on it. Now, it's not so much, and that's freed me up to ski better in a way."
And Hallat has been skiing well heading into the Games. He's racked up some key results this season, including the first World Cup podium finishes of his career during a stop in New Zealand in August, when he collected a silver in slalom and bronze in super combined.
Although the races didn't go Hallat's way at the World Cup finals in Tarvisio, Italy, in late February, the three-time Paralympian is liking his chances in Sochi.
"I feel really good," said Hallat, adding that he was skiing well in Italy even though the results didn't come. "Everything's gone really well. I think the key is to come in as healthy as possible and I've been able to do that, so that's great.
"I've done everything I can do to be in the right place, and that's a super-comforting feeling."
Brousseau is also feeling like he's headed into his Paralympic races with some momentum, particularly after some career-best results in Tarvisio before arriving in Russia.
The Whistler resident captured the first World Cup medal of his career there in downhill, claiming a silver medal as part of a three-medal haul for the Canadian team on Feb. 26.
"I'm super stoked about that. It's been a long time coming," said Brousseau. "To finally get that accomplishment... has been really good to ramp up into the Games here."
The timing couldn't have been better for the sit-skier, who's in Sochi riding a wave of confidence. Brousseau described winning his first World Cup medal as "exhilarating." Reaching a Paralympic podium would be something entirely different.
"It would absolutely blow my mind if that happened for me," he said.
But going to the Games for a first time can be overwhelming, so Brousseau has been relying on some of his experienced teammates like Hallat and Josh Dueck to help him through his first Paralympics.
"We've been talking back and forth about how to manage my energy when it comes into the Games," he said. "Right now, it's super exciting and hard to keep your energy level low, which is where I want to keep it and not get too excited."
Another Paralympian guiding him through the process has been partner Andrea Dziewior, who was part of the Canadian para-alpine team in 2010.
"She's been supporting me a lot through this point of my life and it's been super cool to have her having my back," said Brousseau, who suffered a spinal cord injury during a 2007 snowboarding accident.
While Hallat has a dozen friends and family members coming to cheer him on in Sochi, Brousseau's supporters will be watching from home. Even though his biggest fans won't be gathered at the finish area at Rosa Khutor during his races, he's itching to compete in front of a huge crowd.
"(In 2010) it was very inspiring to be able to get to watch everyone else race... and to be in the crowd and cheering," said the Terrace native. "Now, I get to be at the top and listen to the crowd cheer. I'd say that's one of the biggest excitements for me, is to be able to listen to the crowd at the top in the start gate knowing there are a ton of people down there watching."
Thirteen of Canada's 19 medals from the 2010 Games came in para-alpine events, but Dueck will be the team's only returning medallist. Dueck, who captured a silver in the men's sitting slalom race four years ago, is also going into Sochi on the back of some strong results, recently won the super combined race at Tarvisio for his second World Cup triumph of the season.
"It felt really good to take all the hard work from the season and be rewarded for it, especially now," Dueck said after the win. "What great timing to finish World Cup finals with a win and take that momentum into Sochi."
Other returning Paralympians include standing skier Kirk Schornstein of Spruce Grove, Alta., and visually-impaired competitor Chris Williamson of Toronto (guided by Robin Fémy).
Calgary's Kurt Oatway and Duncan's Braydon Luscombe, both sit skiers, and 16-year-old visually-impaired skier Mac Marcoux — who will have older brother Billie-Joe as his guide — join Brousseau as first-time Paralympians on the Canadian men's roster.
The entire women's para-alpine team is comprised of first-timers, featuring standing skiers Alana Ramsay, Alexandra Starker and Erin Latimer, as well as sit skier Kimberley Joines.
The downhill races are scheduled for Saturday. Super-G competition takes place March 9 for men and March 10 for women; the super combined races are planned for March 11; and the slalom and giant slalom races will be staged over the final four days of the Paralympics, which wrap up on March 16.
Meanwhile, Whistler snowboarders Tyler Mosher and John Leslie have both arrived in Sochi as they prepare for their sport's Paralympic debut, though neither will compete until Friday, March 14.
"Eleven out of 10," Leslie said, before leaving for Russia, of his excitement level for para-snowboarding's first appearance at the Games. "It's off the charts. I am so excited... The fact that I get to go to the Paralympics for the first time snowboarding's going to be in it is so cool."
Check Pique's March 13 edition for a full preview of Mosher and Leslie's race.
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