Carrying Canada’s flag into the opening ceremony of the Beijing Paralympics will feel like a victory in itself, say Ina Forrest and Greg Westlake.
Forrest, a three-time Paralympic medallist in wheelchair curling, and Westlake, one of Canada’s most decorated hockey players, were chosen as Canada’s flag-bearers for Friday’s opening ceremony at Bird’s Nest Stadium.
And after two years of upheaval caused by COVID-19, including the crush of cases the past couple of months due to the Omicron variant, the veteran Paralympians were rejoicing on Wednesday over successfully getting to the starting line.
“When you finally get on the flight and know you’re going, you’re like ‘Wow, we made it everybody,’” Forrest said.
“It was stressful,” Westlake added. “We could lie and say it wasn’t, but one of the biggest challenges for these Games was just getting to these Games.”
Beijing marks the first time Paralympic flag-bearer duties will be shared by two Canadian athletes.
Westlake and Forrest are two of Canada’s most decorated winter Paralympians. Forrest, a 59-year-old from Spallumcheen, B.C., captured gold at the 2010 and 2014 Paralympics, plus bronze four years ago in Pyeongchang. She also has three world titles.
She was struck by a drunk driver and paralyzed when she was 21, but didn’t consider sports until she was approached by an avid wheelchair curler in a grocery store in 2004. She was named to her first national team two years later.
“Pretty excited and thrilled to be chosen,” Forrest said on flag-bearer honours. “It’s one of those just-so-proud-to-be-Canadian moments. And as a Canadian athlete, you have a few of those through your career. So, this will be just one more to add to the package of something you just feel deep inside your heart.”
Westlake, a 35-year-old from Oakville, Ont., is making his fifth Paralympic appearance. The former longtime Canadian team captain won gold in 2006 and bronze in 2014, and lost in the gold-medal game to rival U.S. in 2018.
Westlake, who had both legs amputated below the knee when he was just 18 months old after he was born with malformed feet, has been a strong voice for Paralympians for years.
“It’s been a long time, a lot of advocacy, a lot of just standing up for Paralympians over the years, trying to really promote just the quality of athletes and more importantly the quality of people. Being involved in Paralympic sport has just had such a profound impact on my life and really shaped the man I am today,” he said. “So, I’m extremely proud. I’m extremely humbled by the honour and I just can’t wait to get out there with my teammates.”
It was fitting, Westlake laughed, that both he and Forrest learned they’d be flag-bearers over a Zoom call with Canada’s chef de mission Josh Dueck.
With the shuttering of training facilities, and tight travel restrictions, Canadian athletes have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19.
Westlake credited Hockey Canada for their “amazing job” preparing players and ensuring they had the necessary tools at their disposal, whether it was access to ice, or fake ice players could set up in their garages to practise stickhandling and shooting.
“And we had (Zoom meetings) weekly, daily, and we really pushed ourselves in other aspects that maybe we just didn’t have the time to do before,” he said. “We worked so much on our mental resiliency, our mental toughness, our sports psychology. We were doing book reports, things that I hadn’t done in years as a high-performance athlete.
“We tried to enjoy it as much as we could. And now, it’s the payoff. We’re here and we get to be together and play together and compete.”
The threat of testing positive for COVID-19 amid the highly contagious Omicron variant meant several weeks spent in virtual isolation for both Westlake and Forrest.
“As a team, you’re just wanting to protect each other. So, you’re not together because that’s the safest way to be. And that’s a hard way to be a team preparing for Paralympics,” Forrest said. “When we finally did get together, it was great to be able to practise and train the way we like to train. But again, you’re in the bubble situation, you’re away from home. And it just seems like it was so easy for people to catch COVID, so you were still really worried.”
Canada’s COVID restrictions meant Canada’s Para hockey team arrived in Beijing with only a half dozen games under its belt this past season. The team has played two exhibition games in Beijing, beating South Korea 7-0 on Tuesday and the Czech Republic 6-0 on Wednesday.
The Paralympics open Friday and run through March 13.
Nordic skiing star Brian McKeever, a 17-time Paralympic medallist, was Canada’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony four years ago in South Korea. Para judo athlete Priscilla Gagne carried the Maple Leaf into the opening ceremony at the Tokyo Summer Paralympics in August.
—Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press