Lauren Woolstencroft's gold-medal haul highlighted Vancouver Paralympics

CBC

As child growing up in Calgary, Lauren Woolstencroft went with her family to watch skiing at the 1988 Winter Olympics.

The six-year-old was enthralled watching the athletes. She also noticed something.

"There wasn't a me at those Games," said Woolstencroft, who was born missing her left arm below the elbow and both legs below the knees.

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Flash forward to 2010. For the first time a Winter Paralympics was being held in Canada and Woolstencroft would win five gold medals in alpine skiing. As a team, Canada collected 19 medals, 10 of them gold, which at the time was the most the country had ever collected at a Winter Paralympics.

Woolstencroft believes those Paralympics, held a decade ago in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., from March 12-21, opened the door for many of the Canadian Paralympic athletes winning medals today.

"Some of the same individuals who are achieving great success now on the World Cup, were eight, nine, 10 years old during 2010," said Woolstencroft, who is retired and works as an electrical engineer. "For them, the ability to see someone with a disability on the front page of the newspaper probably made an impact.

"I think also in 2010, the coverage did a really good job of focusing on the sport, maybe less on the disability aspect. I think that really helped people understand just what the Paralympics were and who the athletes were, what they did and showcased the sport aspect of it."

Karen O'Neill, chief executive officer for the Canadian Paralympic Committee, said what made Vancouver unique is from the very beginning the Paralympics were included in the planning for the Winter Olympics.

Dominic Favre/Associated Press
Dominic Favre/Associated Press

"I would say the respect and appreciation of athletes for both the Olympic and Paralympics ... they really moved the marker," O'Neill said.

The success of 2010 also helped lead to increased funding for Paralympic sports. Canada won 16 medals at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics and 28 in 2018 in Pyeongchang.

"I would say it started to become more an equitable playing ground, both to be considered for capacity for investment and also the technical input," O'Neill said.

Woolstencroft won two gold and a bronze medal in skiing at the 2002 Salt Lake Paralympics and a gold and silver in 2006 at Turin. The big expectations placed on her in 2010 weren't made any easier when weather conditions forced a rescheduling of the events.

"It was a very, very intense schedule, just to ski at that level day after day," Woolstencroft said. "Then to add to it all of the external factors, all of the hype in the media and the attention.

"I remember getting to the end of it and being more mentally exhausted than physically. There's no question I performed beyond my expectations. To be able to do that in front of friends and family and other Canadians was an amazing experience."

Skiing at Whistler, Woolstencroft won the giant slalom, slalom, super-G, downhill and super combined, making her the first Canadian to win five golds at a Winter Paralympics. She would carry the Canadian flag at the closing ceremony and in 2015 was inducted into the Canadian Paralympic Hall of Fame.

Woolstencroft retired in the summer of 2010 but her influence on Paralympic sport continued.

"I would say that Lauren is incredibility thoughtful and articulate both on what Paralympic sport means and how it's used as a platform to be able to talk about other issues that we need to pay attention to for access and inclusion," said O'Neill.

Woolstencroft was highlighted in a Toyota commercial that first appeared during the 2018 Super Bowl, then shown again during the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

"It was really a request out of the blue from them to take part," she said. "It was great. It was very fun to be a part of. I've never experienced that kind of platform, that kind of reach. "

Woolstencroft was swamped with messages after the commercial aired. 

"What was amazing was the stories, people were reaching out to me and telling stories of either themselves having grown up with a disability or a challenge in their life that kind of related to me. Others had children who are growing up with a disability. The stories were just incredible. Honestly (it was) an honour to be part of it."

In the decade since the 2010 Paralympics Woolstencroft has seen a shift in how people with a disability are perceived in society.

"I would say overall things are improving," she said. "But there's always an opportunity for more improvement. I think there is more awareness of accessibility in today's society."

Woolstencroft is now married and raising a three-year-old son in Squamish, B.C.

"It's definitely a big change from traveling, ski racing all over the world, to chasing a three-year-old around," she said.

"My ski career was amazing. But this is a new chapter and it's honestly amazing as well. I'm lucky that I've had the opportunity to keep growing and evolving."

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