It was the elephant in the room many across the Canadian Paralympic Committee framework — and certainly the Canadian athletes — didn’t want to talk too much about in the lead up to the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021.
That the heavy restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic might dramatically affect athlete preparation and performance for those Games.
Athletes didn’t want to make it seem like they were making excuses. Support staff didn’t want to get in the athlete’s heads about how drastically derailed their training had become.
So on they went, preparing in the most challenging circumstances while trying to stay resilient, focused and in peak form.
Canadian Paralympians collected just 21 medals at the Paralympics in Tokyo, the lowest total since 1972 and a far cry from the dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s when Canadians brought home upward of 90 medals per Games.
“I guess I’m realizing the pandemic really affected our Paralympic sport and our preparation for Tokyo,” Catherine Gosselin-Després, the CPC’s executive director of sport, told CBC Sports. “Some of the restrictions definitely affected their preparation.”
Gosselin-Després, who has been in her role since 2013, said CPC staff were doing everything they could throughout the pandemic to keep athletes focused and motivated but that it wasn’t always easy.
“They were already frustrated enough with conditions and we were trying to keep that in a box and on the side and stay positive,” she said.
The extent to which the restrictions affected performance in Tokyo could only truly be realized in contrast and comparison with other international competitions.
The past three world championships held this summer – aquatics, athletics and cycling – demonstrate that Tokyo was the outlier.
With proper training, removed restrictions and a renewed sense of excitement in the wake of the pandemic, Canadian athletes thrived.
At the World Para Athletics Championships in Paris, Canadians brought home 14 medals, the country’s highest total since 2013.
Nate Reich successfully defended his men’s T38 1,500-metre title from 2019, winning gold in four minutes 3.07 seconds.
He also collected gold in the event at the Paralympics in Tokyo, but knows the pandemic took its toll.
“This time I’m really trying to stay as much in Canada as I possibly can,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of hard training. And there’s also some things that we’re looking to change that we got wrong last year.”
At the world swimming championships in Manchester, England, in the beginning of August, Canadians earned 19 medals, the highest total for Canada since it won 21 at the 2010 worlds in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
And then at the cycling world championships in mid-August, Canada finished with a medal total of 19 across the 11-day event in Scotland.
Now with one year to go until the Paris Paralympics, Canadian athletes feel perfectly placed to deliver podium performances.
“It was just great to see how they bounced back out of the pandemic and were able to perform really nicely there,” Gosselin-Després said. “It’s almost a similar group of athletes and now they’re performing to a great level,”
Perhaps the most important thing is that this summer’s success means Canadian athletes have locked up a large number of quota spots for Canada at the Paralympics.
“They’ve certainly made life a lot easier for themselves because they have so many spots locked in early,” said Rob Frost, manager of Paralympic performance at the CPC. “Now they can just focus on the process and focus on the Games.”
Frost said the attention is quickly shifting to the Para Pan Am Games set to start at the end of November in Santiago, Chile. That’s where many of the team sport qualification spots can be locked up.
Only the winners of the wheelchair rugby, women’s and men’s wheelchair basketball and goal ball are awarded direct entry to the Paralympics.
“For these team sports this is a big moment for them. There’s a lot of buildup for them preparing for this,” Frost said.
Rosters for Canada will be finalized at the end of September and early October.
“I think it’s going to be amazing in Paris. The athletes are going to be excited. We’re going to have to manage that and prepare them very well for what to expect,” Gosselin-Després said.
“For us it’s going to be focusing on the positives that we’re back to normal.”