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Canada overcomes pandemic challenges to capture 25 medals at Beijing Paralympics

Flagbearers carry flags of participating nations during the closing ceremony at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Beijing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Shuji Kajiyama

The cauldron was extinguished on one of the most formidable Winter Paralympics in history Sunday, with "hopes of peace," and two years into the COVID-19 global pandemic that made just getting to the Games a herculean effort.

Canada produced its second-best performance in history -- remarkable considering the huge hurdles posed by the pandemic.

International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons delivered a speech about unity with war raging in Ukraine, saying "Differences here did not divide us.

"Through this unity we have hope," he said. "Hopes for inclusion, hopes for harmony and importantly hopes for peace. Humankind hopes to live in a world where dialogue prevails."

Alpine skier Mollie Jepsen carried Canada's flag into the closing ceremony to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" at the Bird's Nest stadium, calling it the "honour of a lifetime." The 22-year-old from West Vancouver, B.C., won silver and gold despite racing on torn knee ligaments that will require surgery once she returns home.

Beijing is the second Paralympics to be held during the global pandemic. Canadian athletes faced some of the world's biggest hurdles to get the Games, due to tight travel restrictions that limited opportunities to compete and strict lockdowns that closed training facilities.

And so, Canada didn't set a medal target for Beijing. It was too tough to gauge how the team stacked up against the rest of the world.

But capped by a silver Sunday by Canada's Para-hockey team and bronze in cross-country skiing's mixed relay, the team heads home with 25 medals -- eight gold, six silver and 11 bronze. It's Canada's second-best winter medal haul after the 28 captured four years ago in South Korea.

"It's a massive success on so many levels," said Canada's chef de mission Josh Dueck. "I'm absolutely tickled pink.

"I think about each of the individual performances that have accumulated to that point. And like any Games, there's moments of glory, where we go to the podium ceremony, and we hear the anthem. And there's also those moments where there's been near misses or the total misses that are also important too, because everybody's showing up and supporting one another."

Canada's Nordic team led the way with 14 medals. Brian McKeever, a 42-year-old from Canmore, Alta., capped his spectacular career with three gold medals. He has 16 career victories, tying Gerd Schoenfelder of Germany for the most titles by a male winter Paralympian. Natalie Wilkie, a 21-year-old from Salmon Arm, B.C., skied to two gold, plus a silver and bronze, while Mark Arendz of Hartsville, P.E.I., added a gold, silver and two bronze for 12 career medals.

Like the Summer Paralympics six months earlier, the Winter Games posed unique challenges amid strict pandemic protocols that meant no friends or family members could be in attendance. All participants were tested daily, while access in the "closed loop" system was limited to hotels, venues and media centres.

"What I think about more than the medal count here is how, because of the unique times that we're in, without friends and family, and all the other tensions, it's forged the team in ways that maybe it's never been before," said Dueck, a three-time Paralympic medallist in sit-skiing. "We've had to rely on each other in ways which elevated the whole program."

The Games had opened with an impassioned plea for peace after Russia -- with the aid of Belarus -- invaded Ukraine just eight days earlier. Russia and Belarus, initially permitted to compete, were banned in an unprecedented reversal by the International Paralympic Committee a day before the Games opened.

Ukraine's team of just 20 athletes captured an incredible 29 medals to finish second behind host China's 61 -- 18 gold, 20 silver, and 23 bronze -- many arriving after a harrowing four-day journey.

"It's humbling, and it's emotional," Dueck said of Ukraine's presence at the Games. "It's hard knowing that we're excited to go home to our family and knowing that they may not have a home to go to, or they may not have family there.

"So, when we see the intensity and the ferocity that they compete with, because they're competing with all of their heart and in ways that maybe we don't even understand, it's hard to comprehend. It's hard to describe. It's powerful and very humbling to be in the presence of people that are going through such difficulty that I don't think any of us truly understand how challenging and how awful it must be."

Parsons, who made a passionate plea for peace at the opening ceremony March 4 -- much of which was censored on China's state-run broadcast -- was more subtle Sunday.

"You promised simple, safe and splendid," he told the Beijing organizing committee. "You delivered stunning, secure and spectacular."

To the nearly 600 athletes from 46 countries, he said: "During the darkest of times, your performances shone brightly. Rather than rely on history, you created it. On ice and on snow, you produced moments of magic and moments to savour. In the face of adversity, you showed strength in diversity."

Governor General Mary Simon thanked Canada's team of 48 athletes plus four guides for "showcasing Canadian excellence to the world."

"The Paralympics appeal to the best in us. The dedication that is required to become a Paralympian requires nothing less than consistent effort over a lifetime. To persist through injury, setbacks, loss of motivation, and countless other hardships," Simon said in a statement.

"This attitude represents the spirit of ajuinnata, an Inuktitut phrase that means, among other things, to never give up! Paralympians are shining examples of this concept. Your perseverance and hard work reminds us all of our potential ability to turn adversity into strength."

The Paralympics ended a near six-week run of international sports in the Chinese capital that began with the opening of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 4.

It also ends a run for Asia of hosting four of the last eight Olympics and Paralympics, starting with the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

The next Summer Olympics and Paralympics are in 2024 in Paris, followed by Winter Games in Milan-Cortina, Italy in 2026.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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