Saturday, March 14, 2009

Visually impaired athlete shines at the Para-Nordic World Cup

As he watched another parade of Russians posing between two Mounties while clutching their flowers and native carvings from the Para-Nordic World Cup awards ceremony, team leader Andrei Shubkov bluntly stated his country's advantage.

"I think 3,000 or 4,000 athletes all over Russia," the cherubic-faced Shubkov said in heavily accented English when asked how many para-nordic skiers there were in the country.

"They train so much and they would like to get more medals, not only this year but also next year in the Vancouver Paralympics."

If not for their pesky neighbours to the west, Ukraine, and Canada's Brian McKeever, they might just take them all.

Now that might be overstating the Russian dominance just a bit, but after four days of biathlon and cross-country events in the Callaghan Valley, the Russians (12) and Ukraine (8) combined to take 20 of the 24 gold medals. The Russians also claimed nearly half of the 72 total medals with 33. Ukraine was next best with 16.

"The Russians are obviously very strong the last three years. We just have to crack at 'em a little bit here and there," says Kaspar Wirz, head coach of the Canadian team.

Canada won two gold, both by the visually impaired McKeever, who skied cross-country last week only to stay fresh for this week's national able-bodied championships, and a gift bronze for visually impaired Robbi Weldon, who moved to third in Saturday's cross-country sprint when a Russian skier was disqualified for skate skiing.

Canada might have only 100 or so para-nordic athletes, and many of its national team members are getting closer to senior discounts than the podium.

Sit skier Collette Bourgonje, who won two silver medals in Nagano and two bronze in Turin, will be 48 in 2010. Shauna Maria Whyte, who competes in the same class, is 41.

And four of five members of the development team, all of them who came to the sport in the last few years, are in their 40s.

While both the standing class for athletes with missing or non-functioning arms or who ski with prosthetic legs and the men's sit-ski class can have fields as deep as 25 to 30, the women's sit-ski and visually impaired classes at this World Cup had fewer than 10 competitors. In one of the biathlon events, only four female sit-skiers took part.

"The women's category is really suffering," says Canadian team leader Bjorn Taylor.

"It's a really tough sport. Beyond our national team, there might be half a dozen female sit-skiers. And there's maybe 10 men I can think of.

"It's not an easy sport. It's outdoors. It can be cold and it's very technical."

Paraplegics are more likely to try summer sports like wheelchair racing, hand cycling and wheelchair basketball, Taylor says.

"And in winter, a lot of amps and paras are going to sledge hockey,'' says Taylor. "Obviously, I'm biased. I think this is a more rewarding sport, but it's certainly more challenging in terms of access and everything else."

The Russians, who are gearing up for the 2014 Games in Sochi, debuted several visually impaired skiers in the last couple of years.

In fact, in the four women's races last week, there were five Russians in fields that ranged from just eight to 10, depending on the discipline. They swept gold and silver each time.

Weldon, a 33-year-old mother of two, who has only about six per cent vision due to Stargardt's disease, a genetic disorder affecting central vision, started cross-country skiing a few years ago and is in her third season on the World Cup.

"I've been putting in over 500 to 600 hours of training in a year to get myself up to the Russians," says Weldon, a former soccer player and triathlete.

The para-nordic athletes head to Mt. Washington this week for the World Cup finals.


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