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Paralympians prepare for Athens

High hopes for experienced, proven team

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 doesn’t 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 it’s a realistic figure and if we do achieve that I think we should be in the top five," said Louis Barbeau, Canada’s 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.

That’s 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 Calgary’s 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 you’re already aware of is Chantal Petitclerc of Montreal, who won the women’s 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 it’s one of the fastest growing sports for disabled athletes.

Canada is also the defending champion in men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball, and both teams are medal contenders once again. The women’s 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.

Canada’s Paralympians will stay in the same athletes village as Canada’s 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 doesn’t have as much to do with the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s 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

Boccia

David Van Hoek, Cranbrook

Alison Kabush, Surrey

Paul Gauthier, Vancouver

Cycling

Brian Cowie, Burnaby

Shawn Marsolais, Burnaby

Bruce Penner, Kimberley

Paul Jalbert, Prince George

Equestrian

Lauren Barwick, Aldergrove

Sailing

David Williams, Vancouver

Brian Mackie, Victoria

Paul Tingley, Victoria

Brian MacDonald, West Vancouver

Shooting

Chris Trifonidis, Vancouver

Swimming

Brian Hill, Nanaimo

Walter Wu, Prince George

Donovan Tildesley, Vancouver

Stephanie Dixon, Victoria

Wheelchair Basketball

Arley McNeney, New Westminster

Jennifer Krempien, Richmond

Mami Abbott, Vancouver

Jamie Boriosoff, Vancouver

Shira Golden, Vancouver

Richard Peter, Vancouver

Wheelchair Tennis

Brian McPhate, Surrey

Yuka Chokyu, Vancouver

Sarah Hunter, White Rock

Wheelchair Rugby

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.




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