Canada’s chef de mission Nicholson celebrates Paralympic growth 100 days out

TORONTO — Todd Nicholson has two favourite memories from his five Paralympic appearances.

The first was his Paralympic debut in 1994 in Lillehammer where it was easy to spot his parents in the stands at Canada’s opening sledge hockey game. They were two of just six spectators.

“These are two people who were farmers for a small town, who travelled halfway around the world to watch me play a game that I didn’t think I’d be able to play ever again after my accident,” Nicholson said.

His other favourite memory is his Paralympic finale 2010 in Vancouver, where UBC Thunderbird Arena was jam-packed and included 75 friends from his hometown of Dunrobin, Ont.

The 48-year-old Nicholson is the chef de mission of Canada’s Paralympic team in Pyeongchang, which open 100 days from now, and pausing from his celebrations of the 100 days out mark, he reflected on the growth of Paralympic sport that he’s seen first-hand.

“We’re getting more and more to where the attendance in the stadiums is getting bigger and bigger,” said Nicholson. “One of the things looking at the Games in Rio, we were really worried in regards to ticket sales, and we ended up breaking all kinds of records in Rio.”

“Will that happen in Pyeongchang? I don’t know. I’m hopeful,” he added.

Nicholson has been a paraplegic since a car accident on prom night. He played for Canada’s sledge hockey team for 24 years, 15 of them as the team captain, and has captured Paralympic gold and silver. If there’s a way to measure the increase in popularity of the Paralympics, he said it’s that he never has to explain his sport anymore.

“Paralympic sport is becoming more and more well-known, and people have an understanding of what it is, and how it’s played, and who plays it,” said Nicholson, who was Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Turin Paralympics.

“Now what we need to do is we need to build on those profiles of our athletes to ensure that our athletes start to become household names, so we as Canadians know who Greg Westlake is, who Ina Forest is … So that’s sort of the goal over the next couple of year, is to really help build the profile of those athletes.”

Westlake has won Paralympic gold and bronze with the sledge hockey team, while Forrest is a two-time world champion in wheelchair curling.

Canada won 16 medals at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia — seven gold, two silver and seven bronze — finishing fourth on the medals table.

The team’s task in South Korea is a top-three finish, and Nicholson believes, based on Canadians’ performances at world championships over the past year, that that target is within reach.

The Paralympic movement appears to be on the rise. Officials feared low ticket sales at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, but popularity soared once the Games began. Rio set a record for the most tickets sold in one day — 145,000 — and finished second only to the 2012 London Paralympics in total tickets sold.

Perhaps more importantly, Nicholson said, was that the Paralympics inspired a country of people living with disabilities in Brazil.

“These Paralympics will just build on that success, and hopefully it will really help build the profile and help build, not only our athletes, but people with disabilities in South Korea, being able to contribute within society and be able to be recognized more as individuals that can make a difference, and who do have quite a bit to offer.”

The Pyeongchang Paralympics run March 9 to 18, and feature alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, sledge hockey, snowboarding, and wheelchair curling.

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