Canada finishes with 16 medals at Sochi Paralympics
Chris Klebl, with his Men's 10km Sitting gold medal, and Brian McKeever, with his 15km free Visually Imaired gold medal, celebrate at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia on March 16, 2014. (Provided/Canadian Paralympic Committee/Matthew Murnaghan)
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, March 16, 2014 7:18AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, March 16, 2014 1:01PM EDT
SOCHI, Russia -- Canada succeeded in attaining its lofty goal at the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games.
Two podium-topping performances on Sunday's final day of competition ensured the Canadian Paralympic Committee's benchmark of finishing in the top three in gold medals was met.
It didn't look all that likely heading into the weekend.
Canada picked up golds from para-alpine skier Mac Marcoux and the wheelchair curling team on Saturday before cross-country skiers Brian McKeever and Chris Klebl won their races on Sunday.
That left Canada with seven gold, two silver and seven bronze, good for fourth overall in total medal count.
Russia topped the standings with an eye-popping 80 medals -- including 30 gold -- while Ukraine was second with 25 total medals. Germany was second behind Russia in the gold-medal count with nine.
"The last couple of days were really good," said Canadian Paralympic Committee president Gaetan Tardif. "We knew we had some strength towards the end of the Games. Of course we were hoping for a gold in sledge hockey and not bronze."
A series of high-profile retirements after a 2010 Vancouver Paralympics that saw Canada win 19 medals, including 10 gold, gutted the team's podium experience, but a mix of veterans and youth stepped up in a big way.
McKeever swept his three races in the individual visually impaired cross-country ski category for the second straight Games, the 16-year-old Marcoux burst onto the scene to win a gold and two bronze, and para-alpine sit-skier Josh Dueck -- who was named Canada's flag-bearer for the closing ceremony -- grabbed a gold and a silver.
"We decided on No. 3 for gold with our team after looking at the World Cup standings," said Tardif. "It was a lofty goal and it's nice to say we achieved a lofty goal."
Like any Paralympics, the Sochi Games were always going to be about so much more than sport.
In a country that has a history of shunning people with disabilities, it was hoped the event could help change both hearts and minds.
If going simply by the infrastructure, volunteers and spectators in and around the venues in this seaside resort town and the mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana, it seemed to be mission accomplished.
Boisterous, flag-waving crowds came out in record numbers in Sochi, including memorable moments at both the sledge hockey and curling venues.
But what, if anything, the Games will mean in the rest of country's perception with disabled athletes could take a lot longer to sort out.
"I don't know what's going to happen long-term in Russia but I think that they didn't always treat people with disabilities the best," said Canadian sledge hockey captain Greg Westlake. "For me it's pretty cool. I hope that I have kids one day I can tell them that I played in the Games where things started to shift for people here."
Russia's anti-gay legislation and the increased tensions in Ukraine's Crimea region -- which is just 475 kilometres from Sochi -- ratcheted up emotion in the leadup to the Games, but Canadian Paralympic Committee CEO Karen O'Neill said she was pleasantly surprised by what she saw after arriving in Russia.
"It's the little things," she said. "The facilities here have been extremely accessible and then meeting many of the local people and throughout Russia, there's a been a real commitment in terms of the policies and extensions beyond the Paralympics to use these Games as a real catalyst."
Now a 10-time gold medallist, McKeever said he was impressed with how the event was staged from the moment he arrived.
"We haven't wanted for anything. Logistics for us have been spot on, and that's the things we always look at," he said. "If the buses are running on time that reduces the stress on the athletes.
"The volunteers have been amazing -- really friendly, very helpful -- and the organizing committee has done a great job. This is a beautiful place and we're very happy to have been able to share this."
Part of Canada's success in attaining its goal at the Paralympics can be attributed to Own the Podium, a program that directs funding to athletes deemed to have the greatest chance at a medal.
"It's been a really good Games for Canada," said Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own the Podium. "There's been so many terrific performances.
"The future really bodes well in terms of the young up-and-comers that we have."
Merklinger added that Canada will have to continue to restock its Paralympic team as other countries continue to ramp up their programs.
"We need to make sure going back home that we really focus on developing that next generation -- increasing the pool of podium-potential athletes," she said. "That will be our focus immediately heading into 2018."
Russia's huge medal haul was a result of money pumped in its Paralympic teams in order to put on a good show for the home fans in Sochi, with big cash rewards going to its athletes for gold-medal performances.
"What it shows us is it can happen. You can do it in four years. Any nation can do it in four years. That's what Canada will be looking at," said Merklinger. "We held our own here. The Russians really have been dominant but we held our own amongst the other nations and really had some bright stars going forward."
Non-Canadian highlights at the Games included Ukraine sending just its flag-bearer to the opening ceremony and the country's athletes covering up their medals on the podium as a form of protest.
The United States defeated Russia 1-0 in an exciting sledge hockey final, with the fans at a packed house at Shayna Arena cheering the victors when they got their medals despite the current tension over the situation in Crimea.
"I think sport as a unifying force is what really struck me," said Tardif. "The Paralympics are the true spirit of sport."