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The Globe and Mail
March 21, 2010

New records, new heroes and a new era for the Paralympics

WHISTLER - These were the Games that may have changed Canada, with an unprecedented outpouring of national pride and unparalleled Olympic success. But the glow didn't stop when the puck fired by Sidney Crosby found the back of the American net on that memorable Sunday three weeks ago.

Lauren Woolstencroft, Brian McKeever and Viviane Forest are the country's new athletic heroes, emulating the nation's Olympians by leading Canada to a record harvest of winter gold at the Paralympics, as well.

The celebrated trio iced the cake with one last, inspiring flourish during the Games' final weekend.

Ms. Forest won her fifth medal of the Paralympics, Mr. McKeever took his third gold and Ms. Woolstencroft, now known as the country's golden girl, made her fifth trip to the top of the podium with another powerful run down the slopes of Whistler.

Sunday, Ms. Woolstencroft, the 28-year-old electrical engineer from North Vancouver, was chosen to carry Canada's flag in the parade of

Paralympians to the wet, chilly, special plaza for last night's stirring closing ceremonies that brought down the curtain on the country's six-week turn on the global stage.

Ms. Woolstencroft believes her success and the unprecedented embrace of the Paralympics by Canadians could signal a new era for an event that has often seemed an awkward fit after the sturm und drang of the Olympics.

"We're a different story than the Olympics, but ultimately we are going for the same thing, to be the best," she said. "I think that message is getting out there more and more. The attention we got at these Games was way more than I expected. People really got behind them. They can only go in the right direction."

Canada had its best Paralympic Winter Games in history. The country's athletes won 19 medals, including nine gold. The total met the team's goal of finishing third among the 44 competing nations.

But there was more to these Paralympics than Canada's pile of medals. By the time they ended, there was something new in the air.

As they had during last month's remarkably successful Olympics, Canadians took to these Games - not in equal numbers, but more than any previous host of a Winter Paralympics.

They produced record ticket sales, with roaring, enthusiastic crowds at every venue, and the most-watched coverage in history, online and on television.

International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven said Canadians seemed to make "an instantaneous switch" the moment the Paralympics began, "from maybe negativity to incredible positiveness. ... So many people have spoken to me about this community feeling. Athletes told me they didn't want to leave." At the closing ceremonies, Sir Craven called the Vancouver/Whistler Paralympics "truly magical, the best ever Paralympic Winter Games."

The intimacy was brought home during the moving parade of Paralympians to the closing ceremonies. Athletes walked and wheeled themselves right through the open air of Whistler's main streets, cheered on by raucous, flag-waving residents who snapped photos and roared approval as each delegation went by.

When the official flame went out for the last time, however, it was more than the final moment of the Paralympics. It was the end of everything, from the faint hopes 15 years ago of a small group of people dreaming of bringing the Olympics to Vancouver, to the frenetic campaign to win the bid, to the seven long years of preparation, to the staging of the Games themselves.

VANOC chief executive officer John Furlong pointed out yesterday he had no grandchildren when he first became involved with the Winter Olympics. Soon, he will welcome his 11th.

He said the Games succeeded even beyond his wildest hopes, leaving behind a legacy that cannot be erased.

"Something pretty important happened," he told reporters at a farewell press conference. "Our goal of touching every Canadian heart has been achieved. We think the Games brought this country together in a way it never had before."

And, noting how the success of Canadian athletes had resonated with Canadians, Mr. Furlong added: "I believe that now sport will be forever seen as something in Canada's interest to go forward."

On a personal note, Mr. Furlong said he was tired, but couldn't be happier.

"I'm exhausted. Everyone is exhausted, but I think something pretty extraordinary has happened in this country, and I'm very proud to have been part of that."

Mr. Furlong had to leave midway through the closing ceremonies to begin a long journey to Georgia to attend Tuesday's memorial service for Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed during a training run on the first day of the Winter Olympics.

Before leaving, he told the closing ceremony crowd: "Our work is done. We have given this magnificent adventure our complete effort - our full enthusiasm - in the name of a country we all love."

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