CANMORE – The road to Beijing for Canada's medal-hungry Paralympic team starts next week on home soil.
Removed from the towering shadow of a mostly inactive 2020-21 race season, it's not a secret the top Para Nordic athletes are itching to race at the season-opening Canmore 2021 Para Nordic Skiing World Cup from Dec. 4-12 at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
"We are super excited that we are able to hold this first world cup of the Paralympic season," said Norbert Meier, events chair for the Alberta World Cup Society (AWCS), the organizing group.
"I think everyone has been missing events, the athletes especially, so we're just really thrilled that we can put this event on with all the modifications we've made and all the safeguards we've put into place and everything we've gone through. It's really about putting on an event for the athletes so that the Canadian team can again have the home field advantage as they prepare for the Paralympics in March."
The opening ceremony kicks off at the Civic Centre on Friday (Dec. 3) at 5 p.m. The entire event is free for spectators and a schedule of races is available on the AWCS web page.
The AWCS will also feature a live stream of four days of racing (Dec. 7, 9, 11 and 12), available on the AWCS web page as well.
Four years ago, Para Nordic Goliath Mark Arendz won five medals at the Canmore Nordic Skiing World Cup before his staggering, Canadian history-making six-medal haul in PyeongChang for biathlon and cross-country events.
With a mix of man-made and real snow blanketing the trails at the Nordic Centre, Meier said the world-class course designs at the Nordic Centre are meant to challenge athletes to give it their all with a big-race feel.
"Our courses are difficult, our race courses are exciting, our race courses are fun to ski on and the snow production up there has been tremendous given the conditions we've had," said Meier. "We're optimistic we'll have the type of race course we want to see. If not, we'll make whatever modifications we need to."
More than 150 Para athletes from 15 nations are expected to compete in biathlon and cross-country with big Canadian names leading the charge in the first step to Beijing such as Paralympic legends and medallists, Arendz, Brian McKeever and Brittany Hudak.
Hudak, a bronze medal winner at the 2018 women's 12.5-kilometre biathlon race, is aiming for top-five results in the local season-opener after only being able to compete in a limited race schedule in 2020-21.
Having got some time on the snow at Canmore's Frozen Thunder, a snow loop constructed for high-level athletes during pre-season, the 28-year-old from Prince Albert, Sask., who trains and lives in Canmore, is energized and aching to get back to doing what she does so well.
"The team is excited to get the race season underway, and like I mentioned before, what we love doing is getting to compete," Hudak said.
"I think everyone has done a really good job of keeping athletes safe and staff so it’s nice to compete again and show the world that this is a job for us and that it’s possible to still do it even throughout COVID, so I think we’re all just feeling really grateful Canmore can help and get back to what is normal for us. I’m just really looking forward to doing some races in Canmore."
The sniper said she spent much of last season putting the rifle down to focus on skiing technique and overall fitness – and it seemed to have worked out.
Despite last season's shortened schedule, Hudak snagged two bronzes in cross-country last March in Finland – her first world cup medals in the sport in five years. Although a grand accomplishment, the strategic athlete looked at the bigger picture in the high-stakes game.
"Last year when we did have a competition not all the athletes were present," said Hudak.
"This year, more than ever, I’m just very curious to see where everyone else is at with such few competitions happening I think there’s a lot of unknown: are there newer athletes on the circuit? That sort of thing we would be seeing leading into the Games, but many of us haven’t seen the Chinese team, for example, so you know it’s a different feel because I don’t really know where my competitors are at. But at the end of the day, you’re focused on your own training and priorities so it shouldn’t really matter much, but that’s the thing that’s been lacking in that high-performance environment where everyone comes together and we’re all competing for the same goal."
The last time the Para Nordic Skiing World Cup came to Canmore was in 2017. Along with Arendz's medal haul, Canadian standout Emily Young took home four medals and Hudak shot and skied her way to bronze in the individual biathlon race before having a little magic of her own at the Games a few months later.
"I’m super energized to have a world cup here in Canmore," said Hudak. "It’s always a treat to get to compete internationally, but ... I think it’ll be a really good season-opener. Getting to race on trails that we practice on all the time is fun and I think it helps our athletes, for sure. Everything is just familiar so it’s always really exciting to have a home world cup."
COVID-19 safety is paramount for the event and AWCS has been working with health authorities.
Meier said a comprehensive COVID-19 risk management plan was conceived for the world cup event, in addition to Para athletes who are participating must closely follow Canada's rules and regulations to enter the country and compete.
"We've been working on that for over six months," said Meier. "It's been a big team effort to get this done and to make sure we're doing it all the right way."