Mission for Medals Begins in Canmore for Canada’s Para Team

December 03, 2021

For Mark Arendz, there’s no fixation on a how-do-I-top-that?/what-do-I-do-for-an-encore? follow-up.

Old press clippings, however wonderful, are, his tone suggests, for scrapbooks.

Only the here-and-now is of concern.

Coming on four years ago, of course, the now 31-year-old Maritimer made Canadian history by winning six medals – one gold, two silver, three bronze – during the 12th Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Those five individual medals and one via relay over the course of a single Games richly earned him the honour of toting the Canadian flag during Closing Ceremonies at the Paralympic Stadium.

Pyeongchang, Korea, 16/3/2018-Mark Arendez competes in the biathlon and wins gold during the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang. Photo Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“I’m not thinking about improving on what I did four years ago,’’ Arendz says now. “That’s not my focus. There are elements I definitely want to improve on from PyeongChang, mistakes I made that I don’t want to repeat. And I do that by using skills that I’ve worked on the last four years – whether that’s ski speed, shooting speed, confidence on the range, tactical issues.

“All kinds of things.

“It’s about evolving to what’s next. These will be a very different Games. And I’m going to be a very different athlete, a very different competitor.

“Talking about what I did, or could do, is not what I’m looking for. What I am looking for is to be the best-prepared athlete I possibly can be when I reach the start line. That’s when I put my cards on the table, lay down the best hand I have, and then see how everything unfolds.”

Those cards, for Arendz and each Canadian hopeful, begin to hit the table this weekend, as the Nordic Paralympic World Cup schedule returns to a sense of normalcy, at Canada’s home base, Canmore, Alta.

“Actually, I was talking to my husband about this today,’’ says Emily Young, a silver- and bronze medalist in PyeongChang. “How it seems so strange, so foreign, to be walking into World Cups again. It does seem like long ago. But at the same time, a lot of familiar feelings – excitement, nervousness, anticipation – have returned. All the logistics behind the scenes are ramping up so you can feel the energy spin around the nordic area.

“This is a fun time. And it’s so great to be able to start here, at home.”

Led by soon-to-be-six-time Paralympian Brian McKeever – the most decorated Paralympic cross-country skier ever – the Canadian contingent now beginning serious fine-tuning for the upcoming Beijing Winter Games is deep, experienced and gifted.

“There is,’’ says Arendz, marking his fourth trip to the Games, “the knowledge of the level now. Not just going and seeing what happens; actually being able to kick it in that last little bit, understanding that last step to performance.

“Knowing the level you need to be at, so as to be able to reach it on bad days and on good ones to excel past it.”

While the pandemic-dominated past couple of years have proven frustrating for everyone, Arendz decided to take a forward-thinking approach to best maintain a level of sharpness.

“We weren’t travelling as much, which meant we didn’t race as much but it allowed for focusing more on training, on high intensity workouts. I really think I started to take off when I started to concentrate on what I could gain, rather than dwell what we were losing in cancelled events and training camps.

“So, we’ve definitely had to change approaches on how to do things, but it’s neat to get back to more familiar ways of doing things.”

Four years ago in South Korea, the Canadian Paralympic Team amassed a national record 28 medals, third highest among the 49 competing nations, while ranking second in gold strikes, at eight.

With five men’s and an equal number of women’s spots available for China, the Para Nordic Team will unquestionably be a foundational piece of the nation’s medal haul in Beijing, next March 5 to 13, as Canada takes dead aim at the top of the charts.

“We’ve got all but one of our 2018 medallists returning,’’ reminds Kate Boyd, Para Nordic High Performance Director. “They’re experienced, top performers. And, we’ve got some really good young athletes coming up, too.

“Despite navigating the challenges of COVID, we’re really happy with the shape of the athletes and the performances we’ve seen early in the season. So, we’re really looking forward to the World Cup here on our home turf to see how we compare against the world because it’s been a while since we’ve seen some of the nations.

“Russia is here in Canmore, which is great. Ukraine and China aren’t, which means we might not see them until January, at the World Championships in Lillehammer.”

Canada has named 17 athletes and two guides for the World Cup opener. (Team List)

“I put this on repeat, I may sound like a broken record, but we are a strong team of personalities, as well as athleticism,’’ emphasizes Young. “We are in this together.

“It’s nice to see pretty much the whole PyeongChang team back. We come together as a team to support each other on and off the courses. We build each other up, emotionally, mentally and physically. Then we try to lay it all down on the course.

“I know that four years ago, prior to PyeongChang, I was pretty nervous. I went in with zero expectations for a medal. So having won that first one, taking that pressure off myself, is really just what I needed. Going into this one, I know how it feels, what it tastes like, so there’s hunger for it.

Pyeongchang, Korea, 12/march/2018-Emily Young competes in the women 15km cross country race during the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang. Photo Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“But what you have to do is look at it as another World Cup. We get to do that four times a year. And it really is the same. Sure, there’s a little more build up, attention-wise, more cameras, and a little longer

lead-in process, but essentially nothing changes – you reach the start line, you lay it down, you finish. Understanding that brings a certain amount of calmness.”

The World Cup opener runs December 4 through 12 at the Canmore Nordic Centre.

“Our athletes are very process focused,’’ praises Boyd. “They trust their plans, their training and the staff around them. Our preparation is geared to peaking at the Games in March. We build around that.

“They’re excited to be racing again. We’ve had some time trials and a handful of them went over to Finland at the end of last season for the one World Cup that did happen and the performances there were great.

“We’re super happy with the athletes and their mindset heading into this year. That’s what we’re focused on, trusting in the knowledge that we’ve had success with that formula in the past. And hope to again this year.’’