WATERLOO REGION — Now it’s their turn.
More than 4,200 Paralympians from 165 nations have gathered in London for the largest-ever Paralympics, a global showcase of the best disabled athletes in the world.
What started shortly after the Second World War as a competition to rehabilitate those injured has turned into the largest sporting event of its kind. The 12-day competition, which kicks off on Wednesday, has smashed ticket sales records, with more than two million passes already sold.
Canada, which finished seventh four years ago in Beijing with 50 medals, including 19 gold, is sending 145 athletes to London to compete in 15 sports, ranging from wheelchair basketball to blind judo.
Here’s a look at the local athletes who will be competing.
A funny thing happens when Mannheim’s Leah Robinson bursts out of the blocks and starts sprinting down the track.
For a few moments, her cerebral palsy seems to disappear, and she’s just running — and fast, too. Fast enough to earn her way to a spot on the starting line at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
On Robinson’s left side, she’s fully able-bodied. But on her right side, her muscles are weaker and shorter, causing a slight limp when she walks and making it difficult to pick up small objects.
Robinson taught herself how to run with her disability as a little girl by following behind her father Chris, trying to imitate his foot strikes and rhythm. Something about running allows her to temporarily suspend a condition she’s lived with her whole life.
“It disappears when I run. It’s something I don’t feel, or notice, since I’ve had it since birth,” she said. “When I run, it’s just gone.”
At 18, Robinson already has one Paralympics under her belt. Four years ago in Beijing, she ran a personal best in the 100-metre sprint for runners with cerebral palsy, finishing 11th and just missing out on the final.
Only 14 years old at the time, she was the youngest athlete on the Canadian Paralympic team, falling just three-tenths of a second short of a chance at the podium. She also finished 10th in the 200-metre race.
The Rockway Mennonite Collegiate grad has since moved to Ottawa, where she’s been training full time for London at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility. Working with her coach, she has been improving her ability to finish strong in her 400-metre races, the distance that will be her focus in London.
“People who watch my 400s always know that I start off quick, and by the last 100, I’m crawling to the finish line. That’s the biggest thing we’re working on,” she said. “I die hard, and I’ve been told it’s painful to watch.”
Robinson goes into London ranked third in the world in the 400 metres, but making the podium won’t be easy. She expects the top Paralympic runners to run the race in 67 seconds, notably faster than her personal best time of 70.81 seconds.
Robinson, who plans to study nursing after the Paralympics, picked up running at about four or five from her father. By age eight, she’d already run her first five kilometre road race. At 11, she was introduced to para-athletics when someone noticed her telltale limp at a school sports banquet.
She made the national Paralympic team in 2008 and became the Canadian record holder in the 100-metre, 400-metre, 800-metre and 1,500-metre races. Earlier this year, she broke her own Canadian record in the 400 metres while qualifying for London.
Robinson’s training is designed to make sure her best races are ahead of her. Her goal in London is to break the streak of fifth-place finishes she’s racked up at international meets around the world.
“For London, the plan is to be peaking. We’re headed in the right direction, but I still have a ways to go,” she said. “I’m tired of fifth-place finishes. The podium is well within my reach and that’s what I’m after.”
Thirty-one-year-old judoist Justin Karn said he wanted to be “crazy scary” when he arrived in London for the Paralympic Games. After narrowly missing the cut off for the 2008 Paralympics, the Kitchener-based judoka is going to London with something to prove.
“This is a dream for me. This is something I’ve been dreaming about for the last two decades,” he said. “It feels very exciting and very nervous.”
Karn has been competing in judo since he was 13, but he stepped up his training about a dozen years ago and started working hard to make the Paralympic team. That goal has escaped him until now.
Karn, a coach and trainer at the Asahi Judo Club in Kitchener, was born with aniridia, an eye condition that left him without irises and makes it difficult for him to perceive depth.
But that hasn’t stopped the Guelph-born, Fergus-raised athlete from thriving in a sport he was introduced to as student at the W. Ross MacDonald School for the Blind in Brantford. An active athlete, he also competed in wrestling, goalball and cross-country running.
In high school, he dreamed he’d represent Canada at the Paralympics — but in swimming, not judo.
The rules for Karn’s event are the same as for Olympic judo, except that visually impaired athletes start each match already in a grip with each other. The referee can also offer audible clues when an athlete approaches the out-of-bounds area.
Ranked 11th in the world in the 60-kilogram division, Karn took bronze at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara last fall. The year before, in Florida, he was named the Parapan American champion.
Karn hopes to eventually start a program to teach judo to disabled kids.
Katie Harnock will be a woman on a mission when she hits the wheelchair basketball court in London. She’s got one thing on her mind — taking home a medal.
“I want a medal pretty badly, I’m not shy about saying that,” she said. “It’s the only one I don’t have, a Paralympic medal, and I’m going there to get one.”
It’s the last big goal for the Kitchener-born, Elmira-raised veteran of the women’s wheelchair basketball team. She’s already earned gold and bronze hardware at the world championships and helped Canada take silver at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara last fall.
Harnock, 29, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting her spinal cord. She first tried wheelchair basketball in her driveway at age 10. She played her first game at 13, getting clotheslined in the face at that match in an introduction to the sport’s physical side.
By 16, she was playing competitively in Kitchener with the Twin City Spinners.
In London, Harnock and the rest of her teammates are trying to redeem themselves after their gold-medal aspirations in Beijing ended with a fifth-place finish, despite entering those Games with a world No. 1 ranking. This time around, the team is ranked No. 3 in the world.
The St. David Catholic Secondary School grad is on scholarship to the University of Alabama, where she plays for the university team and studies English. On the court, she’s a slick-shooting and smooth-dribbling point guard, while off it, she writes detective stories she hopes to one day publish.
Kitchener’s Tyler Miller had always been an active athlete; a skilled golfer, skier, baseball and soccer player. But a workplace accident in 2007 at age 23 left him a paraplegic, taking those sports away from him and sending him into a deep depression.
Through a friend, he found wheelchair basketball and a new passion. Miller, injured five years ago when a steel rack fell on him at Conestoga Cold Storage, is making his Paralympic debut next week.
The 28-year-old Grand River Collegiate grad is with the men’s team that is chasing a third Paralympic gold and fourth consecutive podium finish, after back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2004 and a silver medal in 2008.
Miller, now a licensed tool and die maker, started playing wheelchair basketball with the Twin City Spinners. He was soon noticed by the provincial and national teams, winning a bronze and two silver medals at the Canadian National Championships for Ontario.
Last fall, Miller helped Team Canada bring home a bronze medal at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. He earned a full-time roster spot on the national squad this year, and will be expected to add some energy into a veteran-led team.
Michael Heath has waited a long time for his shot at the Paralympics. A dozen years, in fact.
The London 2012 Paralympics are the first Paralympics since 2000 to allow swimmers with intellectual disabilities to compete in the pool. That means Heath, who trains with New Hamburg’s Wilmot Aquatic ACES, will finally get his chance to compete against the world’s best para-athletes.
The 23-year-old will compete in a category specifically for athletes with an IQ less than 70 points, after the Paralympics reinstated the event by using intellectual tests designed to weed out cheaters.
“Mike kind of missed out because of his age. When it was taken out, he was on the brink. For the past 12 years, he’s had to sit back and watch everybody else make the team,” said his coach, Joni Maerten-Sanders.
“This is the top of the podium. This is where he’s wanted to be … To him, this has been forever, just to get to this point.”
Heath will compete in three sprint events in London — the 100-metre breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle. The breaststroke is his strength, after hauling in a fifth-place finish at the world championships in 2010 and a bronze at the Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships earlier this summer.
“The way he’s training, and if he keeps his head focused, he could on the medal podium for that event,” his coach said.
Heath has been swimming since he was eight years old in the Ingersoll area, but joined the Wilmot club about two years ago. He grew up watching his older sister Brooke, who has raced at two Olympic trials.
Heath, an avid fisherman, has been training hard to get to this point, with daily sessions in the pool, plus dry-land training twice a week. Add in visits to a nutritionist, massage therapist and a sports psychologist, and he’s been one very busy young man.
As Stagardt disease stole Timothy Rees’ eyesight, he simply readjusted his life.
By the time doctors declared the 32-year-old legally blind eight years ago, he’d already given up his driver’s licence and said goodbye to whitewater kayaking. That stung enough.
But instead of quitting school, he earned an undergraduate degree in engineering and physics, then a master’s degree, then a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo, specializing in wave interactions.
Instead of quitting judo, a sport he’d trained in since 1999, he began competing in vision-impaired tournaments. His ultimate goal was competing in the Paralympics — something he’ll do next week in London.
Rees, who was president of the UW Ballroom Dance Club despite his blindness, is already one of the best vision-impaired judokas in the world.
He won bronze at the Guadalajara 2011 Parapan American Games, in the under 100-kilogram division, and finished fifth at the world championships last year.
Rees, now a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Victoria, is aiming for gold in London.
Twelve years after a tragic traffic accident left him in a wheelchair, Kitchener-born Brandon Wagner is going to his first Paralympics.
Wagner, 29, was in a Jeep en route to a party in 2000 when the vehicle hit another car and crashed into a tree, killing two high school classmates.
A coach of the Burlington Vipers dragged him reluctantly into wheelchair basketball, and he fell instantly in love with it.
“Wheelchair basketball has meant a ton to me,” Wagner recently told The Hamilton Spectator. “Since I started playing, it’s been a big part of my life. I’ve met friends from all over the world on my travels.”
Wagner rapidly climbed through the ranks of wheelchair basketball. By 2005, he made the under-23 men’s national team and earned a spot on the University of Illinois squad, winning a collegiate championship in 2008.
Although this will be Wagner’s first Paralympic Games, he was part of the Canadian team that won silver at the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro and bronze in 2011 in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Fergus’s Patrick Anderson is heading to London looking for redemption. Long one of the premier wheelchair basketball players in the world, the big, veteran player delayed retirement after the Beijing Games to try one last time for another Paralympic gold.
Anderson led Canada to back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2004, but the No. 1-ranked team had to settle for silver four years ago. It’s been hard to swallow.
“Beijing was more disappointing maybe in hindsight than at the time, somehow,” Anderson told the Guelph Mercury. “It’s always disappointing when you feel like you don’t live up to your potential. I wouldn’t call us a favourite going into this thing, but our potential is to win, so yes, we have gold on our minds.”
Edmonton-born, Fergus-raised Anderson lost both his legs above the knee at age nine after being hit by a drunk driver. One year later, he discovered wheelchair basketball.
His size and speed quickly made him a standout player on the court, and he became one of the game’s dominant forces. He led the Canadian junior team to back-to-back world championships in 1997 and 2001, and three world championship medals with the senior team.
Anderson is now working toward a general music degree at Hunter College in New York City.
It has been a quite a year for Guelph’s Josh Cassidy.
In April, the 27-year-old wheelchair racer won the Boston Marathon, setting a new record in the process and eclipsing the old mark of 1:18:27 set by Ernst van Dyk of South Africa in 2004.
Less than a week later, he placed eighth at the London Marathon, famously crossing the finish line backwards to show off a T-shirt for Niamh Curry, a five-year-old London girl who has neuroblastoma — the same kind of cancer he had as a child that left his legs paralyzed.
Last month, he swept his three events at the Canadian Paralympic Track and Field Trials.
Now, the Canadian record holder in the 1,500-metre, 5,000-metre and marathon events is poised for his second Paralympics. He’s hoping to improve upon his performance in Beijing, where he placed fourth in his heat in the 5,000 metres, and took a 10th-place finish overall.
Cassidy, the oldest of 10 children, still trains three times a week at a gym in Guelph’s south end and on local streets. He has pushed himself into the best shape of his life. He’s looking for nothing less than gold in London.