The Final Steps
What a last four years it has been! I've had time to digest and reflect upon the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing and the years that led up to them. My fourth Games and, by far, the most emotional. A constant up and down, and sometimes even sideways, led into and during the Games themselves. With my success in PyeongChang, I had achieved something never before achieved. Once you reach a benchmark, you want to strive further, not fall back as an athlete. After the 2018 Games, I knew there would be pressure to 'repeat,' but what did that mean? I needed to define what success would be for me in Beijing. And for me, I immediately looked at it as if I wasn't going to Beijing to repeat PyeongChang. First off, repeating PyeongChang wasn't going to be good enough four years later in 2022. I wouldn't be the same athlete four years later. Nor would any of my competitors. New names would arise, and old names would return. No Games are the same either. Alternating techniques, distances, and formats all require a different approach. A new venue: Zhangjiakou, being at a significant altitude, posed a challenge, not to mention the environment and unique snow conditions. My only focus was to be at my best come March 5, 2022. Not too complicated, easy to remember when the motivation is down. Coupled with one of my old favourites as a source of inspiration: 0.7 of a second. The gap to which I came in second in Sochi, missing the gold medal. I keep it nearby as a reminder that I work every day for years to make up for the smallest differences, even fractions of a second.
A global pandemic drastically shaped the lead-up to these Games in 2022. Early on, the fear that Beijing may need to postpone or even cancel the Games was a real threat. I feel for all the summer athletes that were set or eyeing an opportunity to compete in Tokyo 2020 before the decision to delay those Games. And mere months before announcing the postponement by a year, it would have been hard to recover from. Our Beijing hosts made every effort to host the Games as scheduled and safely as possible. A monumental feat.
We said that getting to the Games would be the first competition. Once there, that would be the easy, and fun part. I want to take a moment to thank all the staff and teammates for their efforts towards getting us to the Games safely. Many individuals choose to be with the team along this Beijing Games journey. They sacrificed their time with family to provide a safe bubble for the athletes. For weeks, even months, to be with the team preparing for the upcoming Games. The risks were high, and so too was the stress. An exposure or positive at the wrong time could mean no Games. It felt like I was on the knife's edge. It was what I needed to do, but it added so much anxiety to the last few months before the Games—deciding whether to go to camps or competitions because the Games were always the priority.
The day finally arrived to travel to Beijing. Along the way, a new experience I hadn't had at any previous Games was flying into Beijing on a charter with the entire Team Canada. I enjoyed the experience but recognized that it was probably the only time it would work out like this. There was a sense of relief upon arriving in China. That first major step of the Games was complete. I used the first few days to familiarize myself with the village and the venue. At this point, the experience felt like any other Games. A lot is going on, and a lot of excitement in exploring the surroundings. There is a bit of 'work' if you will. I'm taking note of the time it takes to get from my room to the Dining Hall or the transport hub. The time it takes to get to the venue. The setup at the venue itself for how I might be able to get onto snow for warm-up while other races are going. How do I access the start area? All these little pieces ensure the least number of surprises on race days. I have always treated it as if I'm trying to make any village/hotel/venue feel home-like. That way, I can be comfortable and ready to perform when the competition starts.
March 3, 2022, was one of the most significant days of the Beijing quad experience. Some of it was planned, and some happened because of the circumstance. A Thursday. It was the day before the Opening Ceremonies and two days before the first race. I had looked forward to this day for some time because it would be the final intensity of the four years leading up to the Games in Beijing. The last step to being at my best come the fifth of March. The first actual test of speed at the Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre. I had so much anticipation for this workout. I'm not sure I can express how excited I was to go hard on this course.
I've seen the course maps, profiles, and videos and heard reports from the few who have been on site. All were painting a picture of what I might expect in China. But the first look at the venue was during the Olympic Games. I watched every Biathlon race, studied the course and tactics, observed the wind, and gathered as much information as possible. All along, my excitement grew. I had already known that altitude could be used as a strength. Now I saw that the course suited many of my skiing strengths. The approach to the range was one that I favoured. Knowing and feeling this way is one thing, but the opportunity to test it out; now would be the exciting part! The thrill to be on the Paralympic course and putting every element to the test. Four years, a lifetime, this day was the final piece of preparation. It was a great workout. I was learning how the race line felt and where I might make technique transitions. How might I have to adjust my technique to adapt to the headwind in sections. It's always essential to learn how best to approach the range at any venue. The first bout or two, I struggled a little. I was not used to the approach and had to adapt. After a few tries, I believed I had figured it out.
During that workout, it was hard not to smile. After one of the most unusual four years, I felt a sense of calm. If in April 2018, you had asked what I would be doing on March 3, 2022, I would have answered a hard race prep in China. So it was somewhat expected, predictable, and so there was a sense of normalcy. Over the past two years, it seemed that anything was planned; it changed. It felt so good it was coming together as planned.
The journey from PyeongChang to Beijing was not easy, nor should it be. These four years tested mental strength as no other quad had before. It changed how we looked at our lives and how we did things. To say there were detours along the journey is an understatement. But there was a strength I felt came from that unexpected, unpredictable journey. Year after year, I have repeated the same plan, knowing it brought me to my best. The plan worked, so why change it? I felt comfortable with it, trusted it like an old friend, and gained confidence from it. Now over the last years, that was all turned upside down. Many of those trusted camps were no longer possible. I had moments of anxiety heading into a training camp or block that hadn't been tested before. I trusted the staff that the physiological benefits would be there. But not knowing or trusting a camp can be powerful, but so can the curiosity of whether something new could work. I attended several 'new' training camps in the last two years. I know I can excel in the team's traditional camps; I've proven that several times. Now I was feeling the same or bigger improvements from newer camps. From that came an additional boost of confidence.
Now all this excitement and intensity occurred before I had lunch. After eating something, I went back to my room and laid down for a nap. I woke up to a phone chime and a news article saying that IPC had refused official entry to the Russian and Belarusian teams. Those two Nations would be barred from competing at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. A dramatic turn from their decision, not 24hrs earlier. Initially, I didn't believe it would happen. Knowing there would be appeals and a string of attempts to reverse the decision. Reading the decision came with a lot of charged energy. First, I had to acknowledge that energy existed and not hide or smother it but recognize it. I'm close to several members of the Ukrainian team, friends, and competitors. It was a relief to see them but knowing only a fraction of what they must have been feeling or going through. I am truly honoured to have witnessed the strength of the entire Ukrainian team in competing at these Paralympics.
Oh, and if all this wasn't enough to make a memorable day, it was my thirty-second birthday!
I felt it was the last day of preparation, and in a strange twist of fate, it turned out to be the final day of training before the Games. As weather conditions forced the Jury to cancel any training on Friday, the day of the Opening Ceremonies and the day before the first race. With volunteers running around throughout the day to shut any opened windows. They took this wind storm very seriously.
As with all my past Games, I didn't attend the Opening Ceremonies. This time, it was not recommended because of the three-hour bus ride each way. The staging and ceremonies themselves would be closer to four hours. As well, I have always raced the following day. So with the cancelled training day, no ceremonies, it all felt strange, as if we unceremoniously began the Games. Or we snuck in the back door to the big show. Regardless of our entry to the show, it was time; the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games had begun!
More stories of the Games to follow. Stay tuned.