333 Paralympic medals up for grabs

By BOB MACKIN, QMI Agency

VANCOUVER -- The city that gave the world Terry Fox, Rick Hansen and Sam Sullivan becomes the capital of winter sports for athletes with a disability on Friday.

Six hundred athletes from 45 countries will compete for 333 medals in 64 events through March 21 at the Vancouver Winter Paralympics. Sledge hockey and wheelchair curling are in Vancouver. Cross-country skiing, biathlon and alpine skiing are in Whistler.

Canadians were introduced to Alexandre Bilodeau, Maelle Ricker and Jon Montgomery in last month's Winter Olympics, but a different crop of athletes is on the verge of becoming stars at home when competitions begin Saturday.

Brian McKeever of Canmore, Alta., was devastated to be cut from Canada's Olympic cross-country ski team but is expected to race in three cross-country and two biathlon events at the Callaghan Valley. Legally blind McKeever won two gold medals and a silver and bronze at Turin in 2006. His brother Robin McKeever, who competed in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, is his guide.

Alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft of North Vancouver was the 2009 world champion in four of the five downhill disciplines. The 2006 International Paralympic Committee athlete of the year won a gold and silver in Turin. She was born without legs below her knees and without her left forearm.

Canada's sledge hockey team will be defending the gold medal it won in Turin against Norway. Captain Jean Labonte of Gatineau, Que., who lost a leg to cancer, will carry Canada's flag into the opening ceremony at B.C. Place Stadium. The event will be webcast live on the IPC website, but tape-delayed until Saturday by CTV.

The Paralympic movement began at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England the same day the London 1948 Olympics opened. Dr. Ludwig Guttman believed a sports festival would aid patients who lost limbs or were in wheelchairs because of injuries suffered in the Second World War. Rome hosted the first Paralympics after the 1960 Olympics. The winter version debuted in 1976 at Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.

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