Canadians on the podium at IPC Nordic events 

Para-alpine World Cup this week

click to enlarge Fast Track To Gold Robin McKeever, wearing the yellow jersey, guides his brother Brian to the finish line in the sprint semi-final on Saturday, en route to another gold medal.
  • Fast Track To Gold Robin McKeever, wearing the yellow jersey, guides his brother Brian to the finish line in the sprint semi-final on Saturday, en route to another gold medal.

Although some of the athletes said they would have liked a harder course, the official Paralympic cross country and biathlon World Cup test events at Whistler Olympic Park were a success for both the venue and the Canadian program.

The fact that they were competing on the Paralympic track, against the same athletes they will be facing one year from now, was not lost on the Canadian team. While the team has a few obvious strengths - visually impaired skier Brian McKeever has not lost a cross-country race this season, and Collette Bourgonje consistently ranks in the top-three in the women's sitting category - Canada is making progress in other categories as well.

In the opening biathlon pursuit races on March 4, Mark Arendz put in a solid performance in the men's standing category to place fourth. He missed just one shot in two appearances at the range, and was just 11 seconds back of the podium.

No Canadian men competed in the visually impaired or sitting categories.

Brian McKeever and guide/brother Robin McKeever opted not to compete in the visually impaired category, despite a second place finish in the world championships the previous week.

In the women's biathlon pursuit Shauna-Maria Whyte skied well for Canada but missed a lot of shots to finish fourth, more than two and a half minutes back of the bronze medal.

Jody Barber was seventh in the women's standings, also having a hard time at the range despite some fast skiing.

Robbi Weldon and guide Brian Berry have been having a good season internationally, but did not start the race.

The cross country long distance races were the next day. In the men's 10 km Lou Gibson placed 24th out of 25 starters in the sitting race. In the standing race Mark Arendz was the top Canadian, in 15th position, with Whistler's Tyler Mosher 24th.

The McKeever brothers destroyed the field in the visually impaired race, with both the fastest real time and fastest adjusted time. Their final time was close to two minutes faster than Nikolay Polukhin and Andrey Tokarev of Russia.

While the McKeevers are favourites to win in every category, it was obvious they could have gone faster if someone was on their heels.

"We were really fast today and the more we talk about the race the better we realize it was," said Brian McKeever, who was recovering from a rib injury with his brother after crashing in practice. "We were able to shift gears today throughout the race which we haven't been able to do this year, and the skis were great so it was a perfect day."

To adapt to the changing conditions, the McKeever brothers made some last minute changes to their gear with Robin running to their waxing hut and back with moments to spare before the start of the race. Other racers stuck with their gear and were caught by the warming conditions.

In the women's 5 km race, Colette Bourgonje opted not to start because of a cold. Shauna-Maria Whyte was sixth for Canada.

In standing, Jody Barber was the top Canadian in seventh.

Robbie Weldon and guide Brian Berry were sixth in the women's visually impaired race. In the long distance biathlon races the next day, no Canadian competed in the visually impaired or standing race, while Lou Gibson was 15th in the men's sitting competition.

Jody Barber was ninth in women's standing, second-last in accuracy at the shooting range. No Canadians competed in the sitting or visually impaired category.

The final event was the cross-country sprint race, with conditions changing from sun to snow as the morning wore on, complicating wax choices. Brian and Robin McKeever cruised to their second gold medal after winning their final race ahead of two Russian pairs and a team from Finland.

Lou Gibson moved up to 20th in the sitting category, while Tyler Mosher was 19th for Canada.

Collette Bourgonje did well in the women's sitting category, but tired out at the end of the semi-finals and nearly didn't advance. She did, and placed fourth behind athletes from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Shauna-Maria Whyte was sixth.

Jody Barber missed the finals in the standing group to place eighth overall.

Robbi Weldon and guide Brian Berry regrouped after a few tough days to pick up the bronze medal in visually impaired.

Through the competition all eyes were on Whistler's Tyler Mosher, who injured his spine in a snowboarding accident in 2001 and competes as an incomplete paraplegic - a relatively new category that is harder to classify. He started to cross-country ski in 2003, after the bid to host the 2010 Games was successful, but he has only been at the international level for a few years.

While his result in the long distance cross country race was tough - he said he made poor decisions on wax and skis which put him further back than he should have been - he felt better after the sprints. While his goal was to qualify in the top-eight, he did meet a goal of finishing within 30 per cent of the leader to earn World Cup points. He was also able to benchmark himself against the best skiers in the world, and believes it's possible to make up the 20 seconds he would need to make the finals.

"I definitely think I could have gone 10 or 20 seconds faster in that race," he said. "I stuck to my race plan, did everything I planned to do, but didn't get as much speed as I wanted.

"I probably could have done a few things differently before the race and I haven't had much sprint experience this year. I didn't know how to bring it... I skied a technically sound race, and I didn't fall on the downhill, but I also didn't go fast enough. I did get my international minimum to compete in 2010, so I'm not that far off the pace."

Mosher's technique is limited by his partial paralysis, but he says there are some areas where he could definitely make up time. He'd like to start faster, and let his skis run more through the downhill corners.

"I spent too much time trying to protect myself around the corners, that's where I'm going to gain the most time," he said. "I'm training myself to adapt, to improve my balance on the corners, and adapt. I have a lot of work to do."

He plans to spend as much time at Whistler Olympic Park as possible going over the course and practicing his cornering, while racing a stopwatch.

Mosher also spends time training for para snowboarding, which he hopes will become a Paralympic sport in 2014, and will be heading to the U.S. Amateur Snowboarding Association championships in April.

Venue passes test

Whistler Olympic Park has already passed 2010 Games tests for cross-country, Nordic combined and ski jumping competitions, but the IPC Biathlon and Cross Country World Cup events this past weekend were a different kind of test. Paralympic athletes have special requirements for getting around, and organizers had to use different courses and trails for athletes.

While some athletes said the courses were too easy - a charge also leveled by some competitors after World Cup cross country races in January - the venue met all of the International Paralympic Committee's requirements for competition and accessibility.

"We've had very positive feedback from athletes, coaches, and our Paralympic technical delegates about this venue," said Whistler Olympic Park director John Aalbert. "We worked closely with the International Paralympic Committee on design, layout and technical components of the venue and the competition course to build a venue that is both challenging and rewarding for Paralympic skiers with the best overall physical, technical and tactical skiing abilities."

On the accessibility side, there was road access to the venue for both athletes and spectators, and all access routes are wheelchair

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