VANCOUVER, Canada — In beating out hockey star Duncan Keith — who was an Olympic gold medallist, Stanley Cup champion and Norris Trophy winner in 2010 — in Sport BC’s recent “Best of B.C.” public online vote, Paralympic skiing gold medallist Lauren Woolstencroft (pictured) clearly was an emotional touchstone for British Columbians.
She also topped popular Olympic medallists Maëlle Ricker and Ashleigh McIvor in the vote. At last month’s Sport BC banquet she made a point of thanking her proud and supportive father, whose efforts, she noted, might have generously helped her total.
But whether her dad simply worked his fingers on his computer or rallied support, Woolstencroft’s record-setting five gold medals while skiing on prosthetic legs went beyond — delivering a moment of strength, courage and determination on Whistler Mountain that everyday citizens could appreciate.
She also helped influence people with a disability to find their way to the slopes.
“We’ve seen, so far, a 10-per-cent increase in individual participant activity throughout the province,” says Brian Forrester, executive director of the Disabled Skiers Association of B.C. (DSABC). “And that’s directly attributable to increased awareness as a result of the Paralympic Games. The fact that Lauren did as well as she did, and that we really had such a strong para-alpine team overall, it just made it something that people wanted to be a part of. And they want to be an active part of it, not just as a spectator.”
Forrester, who is in Kimberley this week for the Canadian para-alpine championships, said it’s not just on the athlete side where involvement has increased.
“It’s the volunteers, too, people who want to support the athletes and the participants. And on the funding side, too, we’re seeing corporations, granting agencies and whatnot who recognize the value of what we do. It’s a massive leap forward for us.”
Forrester, whose association runs programs at 13 mountains in the province and is looking to build on that number, says the DSABC is servicing 1,400 individuals this year.
“But, and this is purely based on anecdotal [evidence], I think it’s realistic to think there are 2,500 to 3,000 [disabled] skiers throughout the province.”
While the DSABC is well established as a grassroots builder, para-nordic skiing in B.C. — which has no provincial body and has been nominally supported by Cross Country B.C. — has been poorly organized and structured. The sport, particularly for sit-skiers, is also far more physically demanding, which has kept participation numbers low.
But the awareness generated by the Paralympics, and in particular news stories surrounding decorated cross-country skier Brian McKeever’s attempt to compete in both the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics, has boosted interest.
In February, CCBC, with funding from Legacies Now, appointed its first part-time Athletes with a Disability coordinator in veteran sit-ski athlete Joan Reid of Vernon. Reid said that at the recent Canada Winter Games in Halifax — where para-nordic was officially on the schedule for the first time — there was a record number of athletes with a disability. And she says numbers have been very strong at two clinics, run by Paralympians Courtney Knight and Mary Benson, in Whistler’s Callaghan Valley.
“I think the awareness is definitely getting out there. There were a lot of people at the clinics, especially children, whose parents had no idea this was available.”
The biggest challenge, Reid says, is finding the resources to ensure access to equipment.
For the DSABC, that challenge got a huge boost in December, when it received a $105,000 grant from the Canucks for Kids Fund to distribute through its Snowbility Equipment Access program.
“The goal is to increase accessibility to the mountain by providing equipment to individuals who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” said Forrester. “It’s mostly sit skis, which is the largest financial barrier — some of them running up to $5,000 — but it’s also outriggers and other adaptive specific equipment.”
Nationally, thanks to increased government funding from Sport Canada and from Petro Canada, the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s para-equipment fund has $250,000 to distribute to local organizations for what it calls “first contact programming” and equipment loans.
For 2010-11, the CPC has been able to fund 69 applicants. In 2009-10, the number was just 25.
And in Whistler today, the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program is launching the Teck Whistler Centre for Adaptive Sports. Teck has committed $535,000 over the next five years to the centre, which will act as a one-stop shop for athletes with a disability.
Rob Needham, the CPC’s new executive director for sport, says the Vancouver/Whistler Paralympics was a “huge stimulus” for interest in the winter sports — para-alpine, para-nordic, sledge hockey and wheelchair curling — but also for Paralympic sport in general.
“But it can’t really be measured in a year. Yes, we’ve seen some increase in registration numbers — the applications to the equipment fund being one example — but for us the bigger focus is a longer-term legacy.”
While the 2010 Games helped raise the profile of Paralympic sport, the CPC had already introduced several recruitment programs in the last few years designed to drive participation and to ensure access in all areas of the country.
Monday, March 14, 2011
The Vancouver Sun:
Posted by BA Haller at 12:15 AM