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Pandemic hits Paralympic sport hard, Canadians get few chances to compete

Mollie Jepsen feels a pang knowing the world alpine ski championships are underway in Italy. The world para snow sports championship would have also started this week in Lillehammer, Norway. Jepsen, a Paralympic alpine ski champion from Whistler, B.

Mollie Jepsen feels a pang knowing the world alpine ski championships are underway in Italy.

The world para snow sports championship would have also started this week in Lillehammer, Norway.

Jepsen, a Paralympic alpine ski champion from Whistler, B.C., has not and will not race internationally this winter. 

Norway's world para snow sport championship would have combined alpine and cross-country skiing, biathlon and snowboarding into one event for the first time.

The championship was put off to January 2022 when Norway's government declared in November the risk was too great in a global pandemic.

Jepsen is aware of the challenges, but it irks her to not race in a world championship while Canadian skiers she knows personally are doing just that in Cortina.

"Growing up in Whistler, a lot of the current national team athletes are from Whistler and we're all friends," Jepsen said. 

"It's been a real internal struggle knowing all my friends are racing, but para-alpine isn't racing. That's a really tough pill to swallow at times."

The Canadian ski team managed to compete regularly in Europe in 2020-21, albeit in an ever-changing schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their para-alpine counterparts staying home means a team that produced 10 medals, including three gold, in the 2018 Winter Paralympics will go almost two years without an international race.

There isn't a Canadian athlete who hasn't had World Cups or world championships cancelled or rescheduled this winter, but the pandemic has been particularly hard on Paralympic sport.

"It's been difficult, and in fact a little bit more so for our para-athletes in alpine and nordic in particular," Canadian Paralympic Committee chief executive officer Karen O'Neill said.

Paralympic sport lacks the large sponsorship and television rights contracts that can drive able-bodied sports events over the finish line in a pandemic.

"It would be nice if it was on the same level," Paralympic cross-country nordic ski champion Brian McKeever said.

"We don't have TV coverage. If you don't have TV coverage, you're not selling advertising. You're not selling that sponsorship side."

Beijing's Winter Paralympics open in just over a year on March 4, 2022.

Canada finished second in the 2018 Paralympic medal table with 28 medals behind the United States (36).  Alpine and nordic skiers produced Canada's eight gold medals. 

Jepsen, who was born missing fingers on her left hand, won gold in standing super-combined. 

Mac Marcoux of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., took men's downhill gold with guide Jack Leitch in the visually impaired classification.

"We had planned on racing this season and heading toward it not really knowing what was going to be confirmed, or if anything was going to happen," Marcoux said.

"I think we're about on Plan E of where we started off at the beginning of the year."

McKeever, winner of a career 13 Paralympic gold, has yet to race this winter. 

The 41-year-old from Canmore, Alta., hopes he still can in March's World Cups in Slovenia and Finland, which are the only ones still avoiding cancellation.

"If we weren't racers, we wouldn't care about the race season," McKeever said. "If we didn't love to do it, we wouldn't be doing it. It's been hard on people for sure."

In para-hockey, Canada's series against the United States this week was cancelled as was December's Canadian Tire Para Hockey Cup in Bridgewater, N.S..

The world championship originally scheduled for early May in Ostrava, Czech Republic is postponed to June.

The 2021 Canadian wheelchair curling championship was cancelled as was March's world championship.

Canada's para-snowboard team didn't travel to Finland this week for the only World Cup of the season not called off. 

"We haven't travelled internationally and are not planning to do so until the end of next summer," coach Greg Picard told The Canadian Press in an email.

A re-shuffling of the World Cup para-alpine schedule to compensate for the loss of the world championship created chances to race this month.

Just as Canada's team prepared to leave for Austria, the Canadian government announced additional quarantines for travellers on Jan. 29.

The skiers would be required to stay in a government-approved hotel for three days awaiting test results upon their return to Canada at a cost of roughly $2,000 per athlete.

"We've had some very unfortunate timing," said Matt Hallatt, Alpine Canada's para-alpine, high-performance director. "There's a cost element to it. Seventeen people, you can do the math.

"We had to make a choice in that period of time."

A saving grace for Canada's skiers and boarders at least is the country's abundance of snow and ample time to use it for more training than they've ever done in one winter. 

"You've got to play with the cards your dealt," Marcoux said. "On the para side, that's been our lives the whole way through. 

"Given the circumstances, we've managed to put together really amazing training. Even if we had to go racing tomorrow, we're ready to rock. We're just kind of chomping at the bit waiting for the opportunity."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press