I arrived almost a week before the Games and would stay for the first week before going to the next World Cup stop. I skied at the Nordic trails in some of the greatest classic tracks I have ever skied on the Island. It was a fantastic ski that first day I was there. Yes, excitement, emotion and sentiment added to how special it all felt. The Nordic venue received a new groomer; immediately, you could feel that legacy impact as I skied that evening. I felt this energy; I was trying to think of any possible way to stay the extra week because I wanted to be a part of the entire Games. Of course, if you plan a major event, the weather will never work with you ultimately. It got warm, and the minimal snow was under threat.
That was planned for; another legacy was, for the first time, snowmaking at the Nordic venue; along with help from the Alpine venue, snow was created to protect the course for the first week of competitions – Biathlon. The Biathletes experienced every single weather possibility.
Some of them were not pleasant. It was pouring rain on the first competition day. The greatest thing to witness that day was that every athlete was smiling (maybe a couple of tears after the race, but it was hard to tell). Overnight, the temperatures were going to drop; nice. Well, you have a course that is a water-logged sponge, and it was going to freeze. The next day had the potential to be extremely fast and icy. However, the tremendous skill of John, the groomer, timed the grooming to perfection. It was still fast, not a sheet of ice or a sugar bowl. Solid and fair for the athletes. The next day was beautiful, a training day off from competition and truckloads of new snow was delivered to refresh the course. By the next race, yes, the snow was not abundant, but they had done a fabulous job getting a great course put together. Challenging, windy conditions under sunny skies greeted the athletes for the third race, the Individual. It was the humidity that killed. It was a brisk, East Coast cold. It said it was -8, but it felt closer to -18. The Single Mixed Relay saw what could only be described as a mild snowstorm for the race, windy and snowy. It was fair conditions beforehand and during the zero for the most part. For the race, it all came blowing in. Then when the race ended, it eased off and eventually cleared. On the final day, I could not make it to the venue as I had begun my travels, but from the pictures, it looked good.
Being around the athletes was awesome. I was allowed to train while they trained. Yeah, as I trained, I had my focus and usually just did what I did. A few moments, out of the corner of my eye, I could glimpse the impact I was having. The whispers on the first day of 'hey, was that Mark' or 'was that him' were fun to hear. I got to ski one morning with Jean-Philippe LeGuellec in training.
I heard afterwards from a few athletes, more so coaches and parents, how special that was for the kids. Watching us both out there skiing was memorable for them. I still needed to shoot as I was preparing for World Cup Finals.
A couple of mornings, I was allowed to set up my air rifle target on the edge of the range and get in a workout as the athletes zeroed for their races. Again, there were many comments from athletes, coaches, parents, and volunteers on how impactful that was to watch. I am out there to simply get in a workout, but I do not realize the impact of being around others. There were several shy, nervous athletes the first few days, but several overcame that and asked for photos or autographs. Those are special moments that the Games can offer. Another unique opportunity I had was to ski at the Mark Arendz Provincial Ski Park with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health (which includes sport), Adam van Koeverden. Going out for a ski together was a blast, starting with a few laps of the competition trails and sharing stories of growing up on those courses. We picked perhaps the most wonderful day of the Games to get out for a ski. I also showed Adam some of the other trails; to our luck, they were in fantastic shape. I told him I remembered when they planted some hedgerows of trees and how I've now watched them grow from saplings to nearly three times my height. I was able to share this legacy facility's impact on me and many others.
The 2023 CWG had countless memorable moments for me. At the park where my passion for Biathlon and my career began, renamed after me for my accomplishments, I was fortunate enough to hand out the first Canada Games medals earned in Biathlon. As I mentioned earlier, watching Aerials under the lights. For special moments it is hard to write about anything more significant than my role in the Opening Ceremonies. There was a 24hr period during which I felt my primary role was being a pyro. I have attended four Paralympic Winter Games, and I have my reasons; I have never attended a Games Opening Ceremony. The 2023 CWG would be my first.
Then I got one of the most significant roles in the show. As the ceremonies started, I sat in the stands and thought oh, what an excellent opportunity to share this on social media, but after only a few moments, I felt I was missing so much viewing the event through my phone. I put my phone in my pocket, and instantly I was drawn into the atmosphere of the Opening. The energy of the teams being welcomed into the arena was something I had never experienced at that level before. On the board of directors, there were discussions on how we wanted to express the vision of the Games, right from the Opening and throughout the Games. We wanted everyone to feel like they were coming home. Not overly formal but light-hearted and comfortable. As visiting family should feel. Of course, as in any Opening, there are some formal elements, but they did not feel overbearing, which was great. Everyone came, settled in, and the event became an Island kitchen party as the night progressed. Chocolate-covered potato chips were passed around. Anne, with an E, made a spectacular appearance. In my opinion's one of the most outstanding performances of the night, with energy, enthusiasm, and faultless transitions between English and French in typical Anne fashion. Another excellent performance was that of comedian Patrick Ledwell. He explained several Islander-isms that all visitors, or should I say, newly minted Islanders, and he shared what they should understand about the Island. PEI stands for Privacy Ends Immediately and explained membership to the PEI Right To Know Association, which entitles them to ask anyone personal questions within 90 seconds of meeting. Further explaining what a kitbag was and the subtleties of 'go
away with you' and 'not too bad.' As with any Opening Ceremony, the lighting of the Canada Games cauldron comes near the end. Only there was a slight glitch to that plan; setting the cauldron ablaze indoors was not highly recommended; the solution we were going to ignite a lighthouse. Let me be specific, the honour of lighting the lighthouse, the final step to opening the 2023 Canada Winter Games, was mine. I got to torch a lighthouse, maybe I shouldn't be so excited to say it that way, but I was! As the flame passed along a bridge of individuals, including the flag bearers from each province or territory, from one coast to the other, I was honoured to receive the lantern, taking the final steps of the Cavendish Farms Torch Relay, and igniting the lighthouse signalling the official start of the Games. The following day I got the honour again to light the cauldron, this time the outdoor one. With real fire this time. For these Canada Games, the Canada Games Council commissioned a brand-new cauldron. I would be the first to light this new cauldron officially.
A fantastic two weeks back on the Island. There was minimal downtime; something was planned for almost every day that I was there. That included a lunch with the Premier, the Hall of Honours gala, receptions, the Opening of the new North Rustico Arena (PEI's first Olympic-sized ice surface, hosting short track and figure skating), the Opening Ceremonies, cauldron lightings, along with countless other events. Moreover, that was the first week; I was back. In my second week there, things settled down slightly as we entered the competitions. I learned there are many different ways each sport describes competitions: bouts, draws, encounters, games, groups, matches, pools, programs, races, routines, and runs. There also is the round of 16, elimination, ranking, qualification, placement, preliminary, stage, quarter-final, semi-final, small final, big final, or final.
I spent much of my time at MAPS, training, then watching the competitions, medal presentations, and watching the next competition. Then I would usually head home, change, and head out to another event in the evening. I watched the Aerials finals, Women's Curling medal matches, and a sponsorship reception; I spent an evening at the Canadian Tire Canada Games House (a Canada Games addition that debuted in 2023). I enjoyed every moment, and I still wish I could have stayed to be a part of the second week.
A legacy created by the Canada Winter Games in 1991 gave me the opportunity to try a sport, fall in love with it, and become driven to take it further. Ultimately to the top of the sporting World and earning Paralympic medals, World Championship titles and medals, and so much more. Bringing that spark back to where it was ignited for me to share my story, I genuinely hope that the experiences of everyone that came to the Mark Arendz Provincial Ski Park have sparked a drive to accomplish something greater, whatever that might be. Through my actions and these 2023 Canada Winter Games, I hope the legacy can grow, spread, and take on the World. A legacy that proves you can come from a community in the smallest province, given the opportunity to find your passion, you can become the best in the World. It's a possibility for anyone. Everyone!
Let's spark greatness together—blood, sweat and PEI potatoes.