All about Para nordic skiing: A medal producing sport for Canada

Canadian Paralympic Committee

February 14, 2022

Cross-country and biathlon are two of longest standing Paralympic winter sports


At the Paralympic Winter Games, the term Para nordic skiing is parlance for the cross-country skiing and biathlon events. 
Head into the upcoming Beijing Games as a Para nordic expert, as we bring you up to speed on the sport below: 

Paralympic Origins 

Cross-country skiing is one of two sports that was included in the original line-up at the inaugural Winter Games held in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden in 1976. There were 25 medal events, with men’s and women’s races held across five different classifications for athletes with amputations or a visual impairment. 

Para biathlon joined the fray in 1988, at first with just one event, a men’s 7.5km with three different classifications. The Paralympic program has grown exponentially since then. 

At the very first Paralympic Winter Games in Sweden, Team Canada won four medals, three produced by leg amputee Lorna Manzer. While two of them were in alpine skiing, she earned Canada’s first medal in Para nordic, a gold in the women’s 5km cross country race. It wasn’t until 2006 that Canada would podium in biathlon, a bronze courtesy of Brian McKeever. 

Sport Background 

Today, many Para nordic skiers compete in both biathlon and cross country, making them some of the busiest athletes at the Games.

Athletes with physical impairments compete in two categories – sitting and standing – while those with visual impairments compete in their own category and are led by a guide. 

In cross country, each category has three races of varied distances – a sprint, middle distance, and long distance – as well as two relay events combining different classifications. For example, the men’s visually impaired skiers will race the sprint, the 12.5 kilometre and 20 kilometre while the women’s sit skiing races will see athletes contest for medals in the sprint, 7.5 kilometre and 15 kilometre.

There are also three distances in the biathlon events for all categories – men’s and women’s sitting, standing, and vison impaired – with medals to be awarded in the six kilometre, 10 kilometre, and 12.5 kilometre races. 

In biathlon, athletes with visual impairments also use guides and in the shooting range use rifles which make a sound to help them aim. Depending on the signal intensity, the noise indicates when the athlete is on target. 

Canadian Landscape  

After Lorna Manzer, Colette Bourgonje was Canada’s next star in the sport. She was already a Paralympic Games medallist in wheelchair racing at the summer Games when she won two silver medals in cross country sit skiing at the Nagano 1998 Games. She ultimately won six Paralympic medals in Para nordic skiing (three silver and three bronze) and competed at a remarkable seven Paralympic Winter Games – 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014. She concluded her accomplished sports career following the Sochi 2014 Games. 

In 2002, Canada’s most decorated Winter Paralympian would first hit the Paralympic trails. Over five Games (2002 – 2018) Brian McKeever has collected 17 medals with 13 gold, two silver and two bronze. He is the most decorated male cross country skier in Paralympic history. And he’s not done yet – McKeever is one of Canada’s top medal contenders for Beijing 2022. 

From McKeever’s success, Canada has emerged as a superpower in Para nordic skiing. At the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, Canada won a team record 16 medals (10 in cross country and six in biathlon). 

In all, Canada has won 45 medals in Para nordic skiing (36 in cross country and nine in biathlon) and with established stars such as McKeever, Mark Arendz, Brittany Hudak, Collin Cameron, and Natalie Wilkie all heading to Beijing, it stands to surpass the magical 50-medal plateau at the 2022 Games.  

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