Paralympics·PARALYMPIC NOTEBOOK

'This is all real now': Tension, pressure tick up as Paralympics loom 8 months away

With the calendar officially flipped into 2024, tension and pressure for Paralympic athletes is starting to tick up — both for those who have qualified already and those who haven't.

Multiple major events still to come before Paris; Canadian cyclist Hayward back on top

A cyclist opens his mouth as he pedals.
Canada's Alexandre Hayward, seen above in November 2023, earned gold at a Road Cycling World Cup earlier in January. (Oscar Muñoz Badilla/Getty Images)

With about eight months until the Paris Paralympics begin, it would be easy for athletes to step a little harder on the gas and push beyond their long-established routines.

If the Games are the final exam, many athletes still must make it through midterms — qualifying, in this case. Others with their tickets to Paris already in hand already know exactly when they plan to peak.

But there may be a natural mental fast-forward button for both groups when you hear 2024 — the signifier that we are now in a Paralympic year. That gut feeling — have I prepared well enough? — can seep into even elite athletes' minds.

"Every time another milestone turns, the tension comes up a little bit and the pressure comes up a bit and this is all real now," Athletics Canada high-performance director Simon Nathan told CBC Sports.

"So yeah, for sure there's a very good vibe. The more experienced [athletes] are just chilling out, doing their thing. The younger ones are just super excited."

Adding to it all is the fact that Paris will be a relative return to normal after the past two Olympics and Paralympics were marred by the pandemic.

For athletes entering their second Games, that might mean their first true, unrestricted taste of the Athletes' Village — and all of the potential distraction that comes with it — not to mention the added stress of having family and friends present as well.

"It's going to be unusual because it's a real Olympics this time," Nathan said. "Nothing wrong with Tokyo [2020], it was a fantastic event, but there were no crowds and it was COVID and it was delayed a year so it's great to be back in a normal Olympic year."

That re-found normalcy is also evident in pre-Games schedule.

In Para athletics, the next major event is the world championships, which take place in Japan in May, the proximity to the Paralympics a result of rescheduling from the pandemic. Athletics Canada plans to send a small team, limiting its numbers only to those who have yet to qualify for Paris but could contend for the podium if they get there.

Before then, there are at least five other key events in which Canadian athletes can punch their tickets to Paris:

  • Wheelchair rugby: Team Canada will head across the world to New Zealand March 20-24 for its last-chance qualifier after missing out on a spot by one win at the Parapan Am Games. Ranked fifth worldwide, Canada must secure a top-three finish to reach Paris.
  • Para track cycling: At the same time as the wheelchair rugby qualifier, Canada's cyclists will aim to improve their world rankings at the world championships in Rio de Janeiro for when the Paralympic qualification period ends on June 30.
  • Men's wheelchair basketball: The Canadian team will be taking at least one trip to France in 2024, with the Paralympic qualifier set for Antibes from Apr. 12-15. Canada, sixth at last year's worlds, needs a top-four placement among eight teams to secure its return trip to Paris.
  • Women's wheelchair basketball: A six-point loss to the Americans at the Parapan Am Games means Canada is off to Osaka, Japan for a last-chance qualifier from Apr. 17-20, where four spots at the Games can be won.
  • Para canoe: The world championships are slated for May 9-11 in Hungary, which will also be the last opportunity for Canadians to add to the three quota spots in women's events it already snagged at least years edition of the event.

Tracking Team Canada

The biggest Para event to date in 2024 was the Para Road Cycling World Cup in Adelaide, Australia earlier in January.

Canada acquitted itself fairly well Down Under, coming away with nine medals (one gold, four silver, four bronze). The podium total was tied for fifth overall, though 13 countries had more gold medals.

Canada's lone champion was Alexandre Hayward, who took his title in the men's C3 individual time trial, which is contested on standard bikes. He also earned silver in the road race.

Hayward, the 26-year-old from Quispamis, N.B., is vying to reach his first Paralympics after debuting in the sport just two years ago.

Hayward tasted his first success at the Quebec City World Cup in 2022, winning time trial gold. He missed the podium at last year's worlds after an ill-timed bout of mononucleosis left him weakened for the Scotland event, but rebounded with a four-medal performance at the Parapan Am Games.

Now, he looks to be just the latest contender on a Canadian cycling team that also saw Nathan Clement and Shelley Gautier each snag a pair of medals in Australia. Carla Shibley, Charles Moreau and Lowell Taylor rounded out the Canadian medallists.

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