Title: Weldon thunders along
Subtitle: This dynamic athlete has competed at the top levels in a variety of Paralympic events. Now she has her sights set on tandem cycling at London 2012.
Like all competitive athletes, Robbi Weldon, nicknamed “Thunder” by the Canadian Paralympic Committee, loves battling against the best in in her chosen sport - the latest of which is tandem cycling.
Weldon competed in the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics as a para-nordic skier, but switched sports later that summer when she paired up with Lynn Bessette on the tandem cycling team. The pair won silver and bronze medals at the 2010 world championships, two gold at the 2011 World Cup, a world championship gold and the overall World Cup title.
As if that were not enough, the team also won gold medals at the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, in the Individual Road Race, the 3,000 meter Individual Pursuit, the one kilometer Individual Time Trial and the time trial.
But if you catch Weldon in a private moment, with her two beautiful children, Keegan and Alex, it quickly becomes apparent that there is something that she loves even more. “I am so proud of them,” says Weldon, beaming at Keegan, who was celebrating her 12th birthday that day (Alex is 8). “The both work very hard and encourage me a lot.”
Weldon’s latest goal is to make the Canadian team and participate in the London Olympics. But that’s not all: she wants to win gold there too.
Yet Weldon faces considerable challenges in life, not the least of which is her battle with Stargardt’s disease, a genetic macular degeneration that has progressively attacked and narrowed her field of vision, to the point that she is now classified as legally blind. Weldon works around her impaired vision by taking the rear spot on the tandem racing bike, with Bessette grabbing the front.
However surprisingly, her battle with Stargardt’s disease hasn’t weakened her desire to stay fit. “I have always loved sports,” says the mother of two. “I am not too fussy either. I’ll try pretty much anything.” Weldon started competing at an early age and by grade seven or eight she developed a taste for Goal Ball, a sport that the continued to play into college.
Not surprisingly, Weldon has a very busy schedule. In addition to training between 700 and 800 hours per year and taking care of her family, she also attends public relations activities and supports a variety of community activities. As that was not enough, she continues to work when she can in a local hospital as a recreational therapist.
Weldon has to overcome considerable hurdles in her training, because her impaired vision means that she cannot go out on the road alone. Since Bessette lives in another town, Weldon is always looking for partners. “I need a pilot and if none is available I need to use a trainer,” she says. “However we get around the fact that we have to train in separate towns by arriving at events a few days early, so that we can streamline our tandem teamwork.”
The good news is that daughter Keegan has been providing Weldon an increasing helping hand. Not only has she been taking on occasional babysitting duties for her younger brother, she also helps her mother stay in shape by training with her whenever she can. Keegan also helps Weldon navigate her visual challenges when crossing the street, checking out prices at the local supermarket and so on.
Yet despite those challenges, Weldon never bats an eye. “I like to think more about what I can do than what I can not,” says the gritty young athlete. “Right now my focus is on the next competition and I plan to be ready.”
Title: The “Shark” takes it to the next level
Sub-title: Benoit Huot, one of Canada’s (and the world’s) top Paralympic athletes never thought he’d be able to compete at the international level.
Benoit Huot was born with a club foot and had to spend his first eight months in a cast after undergoing reconstructive surgery. Today he has no mobility in one ankle and one of his feet is smaller than the other.
However although Huot tried hockey, baseball and other sports, his disability proved to be a major hurdle to overcome and he never thought that he’d be able to compete at the highest levels.
At the age of eight, a friend of Huot’s suggested that he ought to try swimming, an individual sport, in which he figured he would be competing mostly against himself. One day, when he was 13, Huot watched Philippe Gagnon, in the Canadian Paralympic swimming competition. “I was only half paying attention,” says Huot. “But after Gagnon won, I thought about the fact that he had a club foot, like me, and figured: “Hey … maybe I can do that too.””
After watching Gagnon, who would soon become his mentor, Huot redoubled his efforts. The next year, at 14, he entered his first competition. “My disability is considered small, relative to what some other Paralympic athletes have to overcome,” said Huot. “So all I really needed was a little structure. The St-Hubert Club gave me that and I progressed quickly.”
Since then, Huot, who has been nicknamed “The Shark” by the Canadian Paralympic Committee, has picked up 18 medals in three Paralympics, including 8 gold and has set innumerable Canadian records. “My goal this year is to make the Canadian Team in London to participate in my fourth Paralympics,” says the veteran competitor. (As at this writing, although Huot had qualified unofficially, the Canadian team had yet to be formally announced on June 15th). “Hopefully I can get a medal, but I try not to think about that anymore. I just focus on my own performance. I have five races to do, and if I do my best in each one, I should get good results.”
Despite Huot’s heavy commitment to swimming and his grueling training schedule, he still manages to maintain a full life outside the pool. He is continuing university studies in communications and administration, through distance learning, and has only five courses left. When finished he hopes to work in the sporting world. He also makes numerous appearances in schools, giving motivational talks to kids.
“We have an important role as Paralympic athletes, both as individuals and as a movement to make ourselves known,” says Huot. “Many competitive athletes lack facilities and support to train effectively, so we are always working to broaden public involvement and to generate interest among corporate sponsors.”
That said, although he is still young and vibrant, Huot still manages to take a step back occasionally to look at the big picture. “When I started, I used to just look forward to the competitions,” says Huot. “But since then I have learned to enjoy every moment in the process, from the training, to qualifications, to promotion work, to the grueling schedule.”
“Now that I have a few years behind me, I sometimes try to remember the dreams that I had when I was young,” says Huot. “I often find myself wondering if there are other kids out there watching me, just like I watched Phillipe Gagnon … and if there are …I hope that they take the plunge into competitive sports too.”
Title: “Masterminding” her way to the top
Subtitle: Michelle Stilwell overcame a slew of challenges to achieve Paralympic gold.
One of the most impressive traits apparent in Canada’s Paralympic athletes is their constructive mindsets. There are few better examples of that than Michelle Stilwell, a track racer, who picked up three gold medals at the Beijing 2008 games, and who recently turned her focus to London 2012.
Stilwell, who has overcome massive challenges to get to where she is, does not bat an eyelash when discussing them. Unlike many Paralympic athletes, Stilwell did not grow up with her disability, it hit hard, in the flower of her youth. At just 17 while piggyback riding on her boyfriend’s back, she fell backwards down the stairs. “As an athlete, I had broken bones before, lived through sprains and had injuries of all kinds,” says Stilwell. “But I was in no way prepared for what happened there.”
Stilwell lost usage in all four of her limbs. Today, though she has some arm strength she does not have hand functionality.
But this did not stop her wanting to get back into sports. “I was an athlete before my accident, and I am an athlete now,” said the gutsy mom, in telephone interview from a swimming pool, where her son Kai, (who is 10 and autistic) was doing swimming his lessons. “It’s just a little tough sometimes getting the rest of the world to realize it.”
Stilwell wasted no time, and before she had left the rehabilitation center was already doing conditioning work. That said, finding a sport that she could play, despite her disabilities, was not easy. She settled on wheelchair basketball, which she was allowed to join, even though she could not throw the ball well. “They used a point system to make up the teams based on the athletes’ disabilities, and because I was in such a bad state, I had a rating of zero,” she says. “But everyone was happy to have me, because they figured anything I could contribute was a bonus.”
The other problem was that there were no wheelchair women’s basketball teams in Winnipeg. This too did not stop Stilwell, who joined a men’s league instead. Nor did she let her challenges in throwing the ball stop her either. “I decided to hang back and work on setting up plays instead,” she says with a laugh. “That’s how I got my nickname the “The Mastermind.”
Of course Stilwell couldn’t settle with playing for fun. Soon she was competing at a high level, and in the year 2000 she won Paralympic gold with the women’s basketball team. She retired from basketball shortly after her son was born, but quickly switched to track racing which she exceeded in too, earning success in Beijing, as well as three gold and a silver at the world championships in 2011.
Stilwell also managed to pick up a B.Sc. from the University of Calgary along the way, and to raise her son, who has become her latest passion in life. “Despite his autism, he has incredible energy, so we get him out playing as much sports as he can too,” says Stilwell. “Knowing the way that I am, I am especially proud to see the next generation coming along.”
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