While Canada is still coming to grips with a disappointing Summer Olympics, the Canadian Paralympic team is quietly heading to Athens to compete in 13 different sports and dozens of events.
And while the Olympic team only hoped to match its 2000 tally of 14 medals, the 144-member Paralympic athletes have much bigger expectations to live up to a record 96 medals in the Sydney Games to finish fourth in the standings behind Australia, Great Britain and Spain.
The team doesnt know if they can match that medal haul, but with more than two-thirds of the athletes returning from the previous Games and strong contenders in several events, officials believe the Canadian Paralympic team can win approximately 75 medals.
"I think its a realistic figure and if we do achieve that I think we should be in the top five," said Louis Barbeau, Canadas chef de mission.
The Paralympics, which run from Sept. 17 to Sept. 30, are a huge deal, with some 4,000 athletes representing a record 146 countries this year.
Not only is there more competition this year, the U.S. team, which was fifth in 2000, is better prepared than in the past. China, which is preparing to host the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, has also invested heavily in all of its athletes recently, and could make a strong impact in the Paralympics as well.
The Paralympic athletes will also face many of the same challenges as the Olympians, with temperatures in Athens well above 30 degrees Celsius. The indoor venues are air conditioned but the athletes in Athletics, the largest collection of events, will be outside most of the time.
Thats why most of the athletes left for Athens on Thursday, hoping to acclimatize to the heat in time for the Games.
Although Canada has medal hopefuls in a wide range of sports, there are a few personalities to watch.
One is Calgarys Earle Connor, a Nike-sponsored track and field star who has set the 100-metre, 200-metre and 400 metre outdoor records with a prosthetic leg. He won a gold in the 100 metres in Sydney, and a silver in the 200 metres.
His record time in the 100? Try 12.14 seconds, which smashed his own previous world record time of 12.56 seconds.
Another name youre already aware of is Chantal Petitclerc of Montreal, who won the womens 800-metre wheelchair event during the Olympics. It was a demonstration event in the Olympics this year, and by 2008 International Olympic Committee officials hope to incorporate it into the regular Summer Games.
Jared Funk will also attract some attention as one of the biggest players in the sport of wheelchair rugby. The U.S. is the defending Olympic champion in the sport, but Canada has beaten the American team in its last three matches, as well as top rated teams from New Zealand and Australia.
This is only the second Olympics for wheelchair rugby after it was a demonstration sport in 1996, but its one of the fastest growing sports for disabled athletes.
Canada is also the defending champion in mens and womens wheelchair basketball, and both teams are medal contenders once again. The womens team is favoured this year, with three straight gold medals under the leadership of five-time Paralympian Chantal Benoit of Orleans, Ontario. She will be aided by a strong team, including rookie Danielle Peers of Edmonton. She was one of the top-ranked young players in the country when she discovered that she has muscular dystrophy.
Canada also has a number of strong swimmers, including 20-year-old Benoit Huot of St-Hubert, Quebec, who earned three gold medals in Sydney when he was just 16. He holds three world records in the 50-metre and 100-metre Freestyle and 200-metre Backstroke.
Elizabeth Walker of St. Catherines will be in her fourth Paralympics and currently holds the world record in the 100-metre Butterfly for the S7 category.
The flag bearer for Team Canada will be announced on Sept. 15, and Connor, Benoit and Walker are all finalists for the honour.
Canadas Paralympians will stay in the same athletes village as Canadas Olympic competitors. And, like the national team, Canada is bringing fewer Paralympic althletes to Athens than it did to Sydney; 144 in 2004 compared to 161 in 2000. However that doesnt have as much to do with the Canadian Paralympic Committees selection criteria as the fact that competition has made it tougher for Canadian athletes to qualify in the top-16 in the world.
B.C. will once again be well represented. After comprising almost 40 per cent of the Olympic team, B.C. will contribute 24 per cent of the Paralympic team as well.
Athletics (Track and Field)
Courtney Knight, Burnaby
Alan Bergman, Cobble Hill
Dustin Walsh, Coquitlam
Karen March, Mill Bay
James Shaw, Newcastle
Kelly Smith, Vancouver
Andrea Holmes, Victoria
David Van Hoek, Cranbrook
Alison Kabush, Surrey
Paul Gauthier, Vancouver
Brian Cowie, Burnaby
Shawn Marsolais, Burnaby
Bruce Penner, Kimberley
Paul Jalbert, Prince George
Lauren Barwick, Aldergrove
David Williams, Vancouver
Brian Mackie, Victoria
Paul Tingley, Victoria
Brian MacDonald, West Vancouver
Chris Trifonidis, Vancouver
Brian Hill, Nanaimo
Walter Wu, Prince George
Donovan Tildesley, Vancouver
Stephanie Dixon, Victoria
Arley McNeney, New Westminster
Jennifer Krempien, Richmond
Mami Abbott, Vancouver
Jamie Boriosoff, Vancouver
Shira Golden, Vancouver
Richard Peter, Vancouver
Brian McPhate, Surrey
Yuka Chokyu, Vancouver
Sarah Hunter, White Rock
Garett Hickling, Kelowna
Ian Chan, Vancouver
You can follow the Canadian team at the official Canadian Olympic Committee Paralympic Web site at www.paralympic.ca.