PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — Canada's team at the Pyeongchang Paralympics is keen to follow the path of excellence laid down by their Olympic counterparts last month.
Less than two weeks after Canada's Olympic team left South Korea, the Paralympic team of 55 athletes and guides watched the Maple Leaf go up at the traditional flag-raising ceremony at the athletes village Wednesday night.
They spoke of being inspired by the Olympic team's record 29-medal performance. They talked about how they can't wait for their chance.
"I think people are surprised how close we are with a lot of the Olympians, especially people who train . . . in some of the more dominant training centres," said para hockey player Greg Westlake. "We're side by side, all the Olympians all year long, and then they go to their Games and we go to ours. I had friends compete in those Games . . . when you see them stand on the podium, singing the anthem, it gives you those goosebumps."
Canada's goal is to top its performance four years ago in Sochi, where the team won 16 medals to finish fourth overall.
Two days before Friday's opening ceremonies, they sang along to O Canada. They bobbed their heads to the thumping music, while traditional South Korean dancers performed alongside b-boys.
"It's the first event as a team, and it's one of the first days that all of team Canada has moved into the building, so it's really exciting because it makes it feel like the Paralympics have kind of started, and that Paralympic spirit has really set in," said Erin Latimer, an alpine skier who'll compete in five events. "It's super exciting. I can't formulate my thoughts properly because I'm still riding the wave of excitement, but yeah, all good feelings."
Yves Bourque, a para-nordic skier who was born without legs — he wheeled along on a skateboard at Wednesday's event — echoed Latimer's excitement.
"It's a super cool experience," Bourque said.
Canada's chef de mission Todd Nicholson, a five-time Paralympian in hockey, wheeled onto the stage, two Canadian flags poking from the spokes of his chair, for the ceremonial gift exchange. He presented Park Eun-soo, the mayor of the athletes village, with a Canadian tuque, among other gifts. Park happily pulled the tuque over his head to cheers from the Canadian team.
The 31-year-old Westlake said he couldn't help but be caught up in the excitement.
"You know what? For me being my fourth Games, honestly I just wanted to come and play hockey," Westlake said. "And now that I'm here, I'm getting wrapped up in it, I kind of forgot how each Games takes on its own spirit, its own life, and honestly I'm just trying to enjoy it day by day."
"I was so focused on all the hockey stuff, it's nice to get to the village, take these two days (before competition begins) and just enjoy being here."
The para hockey (formerly sledge hockey) team arrived from a pre-camp in Incheon, just outside of Seoul, and is keen to improve on the bronze medal won four years ago in Sochi.
"Our goal is always gold, that's one of the biggest reasons I'm still here," Westlake said. "I was able to when I was 18 (in 2006 in Turin), and that seems like a long time ago, a distant memory now. I believe it every time, but I really do believe we can win a gold medal here, and I'm excited to try my best to do that."
Canada will be represented in all six sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, hockey, snowboarding, and wheelchair curling. The first medals will be awarded Saturday in alpine and biathlon.
There are 49 countries, plus the neutral group of athletes from Russia, competing at the Games, which run through March 18.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press