Canada’s next Paralympic star could be on the slopes of Whistler this week.
Soldier On, a program run by the Department of National Defense to help ill and injured members of the Canadian Forces become active in sport, is bringing 40 people to Whistler for a national camp where they will ski and snowboard on the mountain, and cross-country ski at Whistler Olympic Park beginning Feb. 3.
The event was held in Whistler last year, but was scheduled to take place in Mount Washington for 2014. When that resort was closed due to lack of snow, the group moved to Whistler Blackcomb. “The Whistler Adaptive Sports Program on the hill has been fantastic in coordinating this last minute request,” said Major Jay Feyko, the officer in charge of the program. “It’s a pretty big camp to do that. Everybody is excited to go to Whistler.”
Immediately after the camp ends on Feb. 8, an international event called the Allied Winter Sports Camp will begin with ill and injured soldiers from Australia, the UK and the U.S. joining Canadians to try an array of winter sports. The Canadian Paralympic Committee, a partner for that program, will also come to Whistler with hopes of spotting promising athletes who could compete in future Paralympics. “We’re trying to get Soldier On members out and trying the para-sports to see if it’s something they enjoy and want to do back in their community,” said Laura Ferris, senior coordinator of recruitment programs for the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “If they’ve been practicing the sport and have coaching and the skills, it’s connecting them with the national team.”
The program, which started in 2006, has begun to yield its first Paralympic athletes. Among them is Cpl. Dominic Larocque, who was injured in Afghanistan in 2007 after his armored vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device. He will be in Sochi competing on Canada’s national sledge hockey team as one of six new recruits to the team since the 2010 Games. “He’s the big story right now,” Ferris said. “There was an athlete (in Whistler) last year I hope to see on the para-athlete team in the future. He was really good at sit ski. He got that international taste (at the allied camp) and I think he’s interested.”
The international camp will offer everything from wheelchair curling at the Howe Sound Curling Club to sledge hockey at Meadow Park Arena, as well as alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and biathlon. “I think the partnership is very important,” Ferris said. “It really fits. We have similar mandates of wanting to get ill and injured back and active and doing things in their community. Then, if they want, heading on to the Paralympics.”
To that end, many of the participants of both the national ski camp and international program do not have visible injuries, but suffer from serious conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. Their time in Whistler is also valuable to their recovery, Feyko said. “What our main effort is with Solider On is to make sure people are active for life,” he said. “We inspire them at Whistler with the great facilities there and they can go back to their own towns or hills and keep on skiing. Hopefully they come back to Soldier On and ask for help for new skis because they’re inspired to go back skiing with the families and realize that just because they’re injured, life’s not over. You can still enjoy the same things.”