Saturday, November 15, 2008

The challenges of a Paralympic skier

As a visually impaired competitive downhill skier, Chris Williamson has won the World Cup title the last three years and six times in his career.The 36-year-old Markham resident also captured an Olympic gold medal in slalom at the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.But there’s one honour that eludes Williamson — a World Championship gold medal.

With the World Championships taking place in South Korea Feb. 19 to March 2, Williamson hopes to attain his goal after being recently named to this season’s 18-member Canadian Para-Alpine ski team.As the lone male visually impaired member on the team, Williamson intends to compete in six events at the World Championships: downhill, giant slalom, super G, slalom, super combined and a team event.

Goal is gold“I’ve never won a World Championship gold before. That’s my goal,” Williamson said. “But I’d be happy if I can reach the podium in all of them. Any medal you can win at the World Championship is the result of hard work.”Diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, which limits him to just six-per-cent peripheral vision, Williamson’s selection to the team was based on a point system on how he performed last season.

During that campaign, he won 11 World Cup races and reached the medal podium in 14 en route to his third straight overall title.Chosen to the national team, Williamson will be in his 11th season. That makes him one of the senior members on the squad.At the same time, he’s the oldest alpine ski racer in Canada, able-bodied or disabled.“It sure feels good to be able to last that long,” Williamson said of his longevity with the national team.

“It’s one of the dubious distinctions I have. But it shows I’ve been performing well for a long time. I’m not a flash in the pan.”Visually impairedVisually impaired since birth, Williamson said he hasn’t untapped some unknown youth elixir or discovered the fountain of youth. He attributed his longevity to his passion for the sport. This began when he put on his first set of skis at age three in Manitoba on the encouragement of his father and uncle, who were also avid skiers.

A recreational skier up until 1990, Williamson was introduced to competitive skiing during his time in Winnipeg when someone informed him of the paralympic movement and the national team. Upon graduating from university and moving to Ontario, Williamson made the provincial team in 1997 and the national team in the fall of 1998 where he’s been a fixture since.

Back from injuries“I’ve had lots of success and it’s been great with the help the coaches that I’ve had through the years,” he said. “I’ve always mentally looked at my sport and how I perform positively. “At times I’ve had injuries and couldn’t race, but was able to come back and have a positive outlook.”Jean-Sebastien Labrie, Canadian Para-Alpine ski team coach, acknowledged Williamson’s positive outlook in the sport is a major factor in his success.

“Chris’ intensity in training and the love for skiing makes him a good racer,” Labrie said. “He has a naturally competitive personality that makes him go hard and fast all the time. He’s not afraid to let the skis go despite being visually impaired. That gives him a good advantage for speed events.”

While Williamson is gearing up for the World Championships, he can’t help but look down the road since the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics will be staged in Vancouver.That, Williamson said, is another incentive for him to continue with his competitive career.“With Vancouver just around the corner, it would be great to see if I can make the team because the Games will be near home,” he said.


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