Paralympics give athletes another chance at reaching highest level

When you meet one of Canada’s Paralympians, it’s often one of the first questions that come to mind.

How did you end up competing in the Paralympics? More specifically, how did you become disabled, what happened?

These can be uncomfortable questions but are part of the fabric of every Paralympian’s journey to the highest levels of their chosen sport.

For some athletes, their disability is all they have ever known, all they have ever lived with. For others, it occurred later in life — the victim of a freak accident or medical bad luck.

For many, competing at the highest level was never a goal, but was an emerging possibility as they became aware of the sport offered to disabled athletes.

Life changing

In 2005, Dominic Larocque joined the army. Two years later he was on a dusty road in Afghanistan when the vehicle he was in rolled over an IED (improvised explosive device).

“At that moment I lost my left leg above the knee so that changed my life forever,” Larocque recalls.

He spent the next two years in rehabilitation and acknowledges that after his life-altering injury, he was searching for what was next.

“I decided to reconnect with sport. When I was a kid, I loved hockey.”

In 2010, at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver, Larocque had a chance to meet members of the national Paralympic hockey team. It changed his life.

“At that moment I saw the atmosphere around the sport and I realized I just wanted to be on the ice with these guys,” Larocque says.

“Just to have a chance to play hockey again. I never even knew about sledge hockey when I got injured so when I realized I could actually play hockey again I was very excited.”

The rest is history. Larocque picked up the sport quickly and was a member of the national team that captured the world championships in 2013. He also represented Canada at the 2014 Sochi Games and will be in Pyeongchang, this time as the team’s goalie.

Larocque’s versatility and determination allowed him to switch from forward to goalie.(Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada)

Success comes quickly

Kurt Oatway has been skiing since he was five years old. He skied competitively as a teenager before shifting his focus to school. It was an accident he had in his 20s that led him back to the sport, eventually becoming a key member of Canada’s Paralympic ski team.

Oatway was 23 in 2007, a geology student at the University of Saskatchewan, when his class took a field trip to Utah.

“I fell off a rock outcrop and broke my back,” he recalls. Oatway fell 12 metres, fracturing a vertebrae in his spine and suffered a spinal cord injury.

He returned to Saskatchewan to finish his degree. And as part of his rehab and physiotherapy, he started skiing again, eventually ending up in a Regina racing program run by the Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing (CADS).

“I got noticed by a couple of people on the national team and they asked me how interested are you in skiing,” Oatway recalls.

He told them about his ski racing history and was invited to a series of development camps.

“I went in and I must have done something right,” Oatway says. 

Success came quickly. As a sit-skier, competing at his first-ever World Cup event in 2013, he captured a bronze medal in the slalom.

“It was easy to adjust to it because I’d had over 10 years of skiing experience,” Oatway says. “It was different but it was still familiar at the same time.”

At the Sochi Paralympic Games, he competed in slalom, giant slalom, super-G and downhill, capturing two top-10 finishes. He is a leading contender heading into Pyeongchang.

Larocque, left, immediately knew his career path after the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver. (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Hockey magic

Tyler McGregor is still getting used to his recently acquired nickname: magic. The name emerged after McGregor’s dominating performance at the 2017 world para ice hockey championship, where Canada captured the top prize.

For McGregor, it’s been quite a journey. In 2010, he was an emerging 15-year-old triple-A hockey player when he suffered a broken leg. X-rays revealed the break was likely prompted by a form of bone cancer doctors discovered spreading through his leg, eventually causing the limb to be amputated above the knee.

“I think the most devastating part for me was not the fear of going through chemotherapy and having cancer, the most devastating part was finding out that I was going to lose my leg,” McGregor recalls.

“That terrified me because I had kind of committed my life to being a hockey player and suddenly that was kind of being taken away. And so that was the scariest part for me and by far the most emotional. As a 15, 16-year-old kid I wasn’t ready to accept that my whole career was over,” McGregor says.

He was introduced to para ice hockey in 2011 and by 2012 was a member of the national team. It was a second chance most athletes never get.

“Most people don’t get to be able to play hockey at a high level again, and I was very surprised to learn of how difficult, but at the same time how exciting the sport was.”

McGregor hopes to live up to his nickname in Pyeongchang, where he’s part of a team favoured by many to win a gold medal.

Oatway has medal aspirations for Pyeongchang. (Roger Whitney/Alpine Canada)

Paralympic state

Ina Forrest’s unlikely Paralympic journey began at Costco in Kelowna, B.C. It had been a long time since she had really been active.

Years earlier when she was 21, her life was forever altered on a B.C. highway.

“I was in a car accident. We were on our way to a volleyball tournament we were hit head on by an impaired driver,” Forrest recalls.

Injuries from the accident meant Forrest would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

“After my accident, I wasn’t in any sports. I went to university, got married, had kids and it was just a part of my life where there wasn’t really any accessible sport where I lived,” Forrest says.

That all changed when her family moved to Vernon, B.C. 

“I met a guy in Costco in Kelowna and he said ‘Have you ever thought about trying wheelchair curling?'” Forrest recalls. She had never really heard of it but was told that B.C. was hosting the upcoming nationals and was hoping to field two teams in what was a fledgling sport at the time.

McGregor, left, was one of the top performers at last year’s world para ice hockey championship. (Harry Engels/Getty Images)

“Two weeks later, I was at the selection camp and there was four women…they needed at least two of us. And so I made it onto that team and then two months later nationals were held. So it was kind of a whirlwind of getting to sort of the highest level in Canada in a three, four-month span.”

Forrest excelled at the sport and has played at the highest level ever since, becoming one of the world’s most decorated wheelchair curlers. On the Paralympic stage, Forrest has been part of a team that won gold in 2010 and 2014. She has also competed in the last 10 world championships.  In 2016, she was inducted into the Canadian curling Hall of Fame. 

“I just really enjoyed being back in competitive sport. It was just something that I felt I had all of a sudden I was missing in my life, and so I was very happy to have the opportunity to join again.”

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