One of the most amazing events I've ever experienced was the 2010 Paralympic Games in Whistler, British Columbia. I was privileged to be there with Saskatoon author Mary Harelkin Bishop and some of her family as we cheered for Saskatchewan cross country sit-skier Colette Bourgonje, who was competing in her ninth Paralympic Games... AND... we launched Mary's book Moving Forward: The Journey of Paralympian Colette Bourgonje at the Saskatchewan Pavilion during the Games! What an exceptionally wonderful weekend!
Colette won two medals at those Games and was awarded the gold medal for the woman who most personifies the spirit of the Paralympic Games. What we didn't know then was that Colette was not yet done competing at the Olympic level. She is in Russia right now - to compete in her tenth Paralympic Games at Sochi 2014! We couldn't be more excited for her - but more about that later.
Colette was born in Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan, and was an accomplished athlete in several sports as a teenager. In 1980, just before her graduation from high school, Colette lost the use of her legs in a car accident. She quickly had to rethink her desire to become a phys ed teacher and athlete. The accident slowed her down for only a few days. She went on to become the first disabled student to graduate from the University of Saskatchewan and the first female student in a wheelchair to graduate in Physical Education from a Canadian university. She began competing internationally within 10 years and competed in her first Paralympic Games in 1992.
Paralympians are remarkable. They're talented, amazing, inspiring athletes who have overcome much - including their various disabilities. Here are some photos of my trip to the 2010 Paralympic Games. I hope you can catch some of the spirit that fills the Games.
The inukshuk welcomed us to Whistler, north of Vancouver, B.C., where the skiing events were held.
This plaque below the International Paralympic Committee symbol explains that the three symbols mean 'I move', with the centre point representing the IPC's role in bringing athletes together from across the world.
Author Mary Harelkin Bishop (right) and I posed with the sign leading to the cross country ski venue. We were slightly disappointed to see 'Vancouver 2010' and 'Olympic' signs at the Whistler venue for the Paralympics, but we understood the costs involved in changing it all for the Paralympic Games. More than 2,500 athletes competed in the 2010 Olympics while about 600 athletes competed in the 2010 Paralympics.
The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome, Italy in 1960 and featured 400 athletes from 23 countries. In 1976, Örnsköldsvik, Sweden staged the first Paralympic Winter Games. The Games are now the second biggest sporting event in the world.
Shortly before we arrived in Whistler, Colette's name went into the history books as the first-ever Canadian to win a Paralympic medal on home snow after she won the silver medal in the women's 10-kilometre sit-ski race. We were very excited for her and pleased that we would soon be watching her compete in a 5-kilometre event and a relay.
When we arrived at the cross country site, Mary and I happily noticed the flags of all the different countries.
We did our best to 'represent' our country. Go, Canada!
Go, Colette! (Which is what our shirts said.)
Between the members of Colette's family (on the left standing below me and Mary) and Mary's family (everybody else in the photo), there was no confusion as to who these Canadians were supporting.
I will never forget being in those stands and seeing people from so many other countries. To our right and directly behind us, we met people from Japan, China, Italy and the United States.
In front of us and to our left, we could reach out and touch people from Germany, Finland, Russia and more. It was quite overwhelming.
The skiers began their races in front of us, then went up the track to our right, turned and continued over the hills in front of us, then proceeded along the track into the trees to our left. Their progress was shown periodically on the giant screen, then finished their races in front of us again.
Colette is in the forefront here, heading to the right while warming up for a race.
I will never forget the feeling of joy and celebration that went through the stands every single time an athlete came to the finish line. The entire crowd stood up and cheered for every athlete - no matter whether they were the winner of the race or so far behind that everyone had to wait an few extra minutes for them to finish the race. The cheers and clapping were equally loud.
I watched in awe as athletes with only one leg crossed the finish line. Some had artificial legs. Some had no arms or only one arm. The big screen showed our hero Colette fall over on her sit-ski partway through the race. Somehow, this strong, courageous woman righted herself and, at age 48, still came in third in the 5-kilometre race - competing with athletes who were half her age. We couldn't believe our eyes.
I can barely stand up on cross country skis, and these Paralympians were defying the odds and working past so many barriers - perceived and real - to achieve such greatness. Talk about inspiring.
Colette and the other two medallists for the 5-km race received flowers and recognition at the site, then were given their medals at an evening ceremony (below).
The medals were presented, then we turned around to see the flags being raised.
A big screen captured the 5-km medallists for all to see. What a great image of Colette - on the left.
The next day, Mary Harelkin Bishop signed Moving Forward books at a Whistler bookstore.
Then we headed to the Saskatchewan Pavilion for an evening launch.
We were pretty excited to not only have two real-life Royal Canadian Mounted Police pose with us, but their stoic (wooden) counterpart as well. Many jokes were made about this stiff recruit, but none are appropriate to mention here. Seriously, though - did you know that every RCMP officer takes his or her training at the RCMP training centre in Regina, Saskatchewan? Yes, we're very proud of that fact.
The gracious RCMP officers also posed with Mary and Colette.
Colette and Mary then signed Moving Forward books, including this one for Dustin Duncan, Saskatchewan's then-minister of Minister of Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport.
Mary (centre) and members of Colette's family listened as it was announced that Colette had just been named the female recipient of the 2010 Dr. Whang Youn Dai Award for the female who best embodies the spirit of the Paralympic Games.
Colette Bourgonje believes in sharing her love of sport, her desire to help others get physically active, and her rewards for doing so herself - including her Paralympic medals. Here, I was privileged to wear her bronze medal for a few moments while Mary Harelkin Bishop enjoyed wearing Colette's silver medal. Colette thought she'd be funny with a 'they took my medals' pose.
As I mentioned earlier, Colette is in Sochi right now to compete in the 2014 Paralympic Games. We wish her well and we'll keep on cheering for her as she and fellow athletes compete for the love of sport and to encourage physical activity for all ages and abilities. Colette says it best herself in this wonderful Canadian Tire video that shares her journey to the 2014 Games.
Here's a great Vancouver Sun interview with Colette. You can also check Colette's Canadian Paralympic Committee bio here.