Athletes of all abilities take aim at Canada Winter Games medals
"Life-changing" is how Team Alberta skier Denyse Dawe describes her introduction to the sport of Para nordic, which includes both standing and sit-ski cross-country events and is among the 2023 Canada Winter Games events being held on Prince Edward Island.
She was introduced to the sport just over a year ago, and says it has completely changed the way she views herself and her disability.
"Honestly, for the longest time, my disability was something that I'd hide from people," she said.
"I have some brachydactyly, which means I'm missing a lot of my fingers and I would always put my hand in a pocket or something. And now, having an opportunity like this has allowed me to actually embrace that and see it as a strength rather than something to hide."
Dawe races in the standing 2.5-kilometre event, and is a proud member of Team Alberta both while competing and while staying at the athletes' village during the Games.
Her experience is an example of how this event is striving to be inclusive in every aspect.
Jesse Bachinsky of Manitoba is also taking part in Para nordic events, having picked up the sport about seven years ago. For most of that time, he's skied with his sighted guide and "best friend" Levi Nadlersmith.
"He's played a really crucial part in my skiing and I don't think I would be doing what I'm doing without him," Bachinsky said.
"My goal in this sport is to ski as long as I can and to be a role model for other people," he added. "Anything is possible, you just have to just try it…. Give it a shot and see where it takes you."
Acting as a guide for a Paralympian has taken Graham Nishikawa around the world, including some trips up a medal podium.
He was an able-bodied skier who went on to guide Canada's Brian McKeever at the Paralympics and won multiple gold medals at his side.
"Brian is visually impaired, so I'm there to help him get around the course as fast as possible without him, yeah, falling or anything like that," he said.
"I started with him in 2014 in Sochi and just finished with him in Beijing last year."
Nishikawa is now coaching on the national level and on P.E.I. for the Canada Games.
"It's amazing to have Para nordic part of it," he said. "That inclusion is huge, just to normalize Para nordic within the ski community and across the country."
Rather than having a separate event following the Olympics as is the case with the Paralympics, the Canada Games is one big event for all athletes.
"Seeing our Para athletes just become part of the team — they're part of their provincial team and they're just hanging out with new people and making friends and seeing the camaraderie and the sportsmanship and and just becoming part of the team — I think it's just so big," said Nishikawa.
"What we're really happy about is the inclusion of standing Para athletes in the relay…. There might be opportunities for some of our Para athletes to race alongside their teammates from the able-bodied side…. I think it's going to be a really cool event."
Charity Sheehan is the assistant chef de mission for Team P.E.I. and the executive director of Special Olympics P.E.I.
"I think it's just a way to showcase the abilities of our athletes," she said. "We have 18 official sports within the Special Olympics movement and having them involved in the Canada Games gets to showcase that ability and that athleticism."
Special Olympians are competing in figure skating at the Winter Games, and take part in athletics and swimming events during the summer edition of the Games.
There aren't any P.E.I. athletes in the figure skating category this year, but Sheehan notes: "In 2011, one of our Special Olympics athletes was the medal winner, Alyssa Chapman from Murray Harbour."
P.E.I. has also produced Mark Arendz, who has won four Para nordic world championships and 12 Paralympic medals, and had the provincial ski park in Brookvale named after him back in 2018.
The 32-year-old athlete had to leave the province over the weekend in order to compete in another event, but before he went, he spoke to CBC News about the upcoming Para nordic schedule during the Games.
"I hope it's eye-opening," he said. "I hope that we can showcase that yeah, anyone can get out onto the snow once the infrastructure is there.
"I hope this opens up a lot of doors — and opening winter sports up to those that might be having those challenges of accessibility within the winter."
I really hope that there are other young athletes who can see these Games, can see that there's opportunity in the sport, and then go and seek out those opportunities. Because they're out there. — Denyse Dawe
Let's save the last word for Denyse Dawe.
"I really hope that there are other young athletes who can see these Games, can see that there's opportunity in the sport, and then go and seek out those opportunities," she said. "Because they're out there."
The 2023 Canada Winter Games continue through March 5.