OTTAWA – For Para snowboarder Sandrine Hamel, the experience of competing at the Paralympic Winter Games last year was the tonic she needed to realize she could compete with the best in the world.
The 21-year-old from St-Sauveur, Que. was among Canada’s biggest breakthrough stars in Para sports this past winter. She earned her first of three World Cup podiums in November and collected two silver medals at the world championships in late March.
‘’I was surprised to get that first World Cup medal because in each race last year I was always super close but there was always a little something missing,’’ said Hamel during a visit to the CPC’s Paralympian Search last month in Gatineau. ‘’To finally break the ice, I was super happy.’’
She has also been a threat in both snowboard events this season.
‘’Most of my success was in the banked slalom so when I got the medal in the snowboard cross at the worlds, that was another surprise,’’ she said. ‘’It was the first time in our sport that we raced four in the final, plus the other three were from the Netherlands, so to get that medal was unique. I’ll always remember it.’’
Hamel, born with a double major scoliosis, posted two top-five finishes in PyeongChang as a NextGen athlete.
‘’The Games gave me a great experience about racing,’’ she added. ‘’And that included how I managed my stress and that is something if you don’t master it can really affect an athlete.
‘’At the technical level I was able to refine in the spring and at the pre-season camp and that really helped when it was time to perform.’’
Here are some of Canada’s other breakout stars for the 2018-19 winter season:
Frédérique Turgeon, Alpine Skiing
Frédérique Turgeon wasn’t only one of Canada’s biggest breakout stars in all sports combined this year but also one of the best stories. On the slopes, the 19-year-old Turgeon earned her first career Crystal Globe as the overall points leader in women’s slalom on the World Cup circuit with two gold, two silver and two fourth-place finishes. That was just a few weeks after a triple medal performance at the world championships.
Turgeon, born with a right leg that is 50 percent shorter than the other, competed with a heavy heart this season. Her father, the man that taught her not only how to ski but showed her she could lead a healthy and happy life with her disability, passed away unexpectedly.
Her first two World Cup wins this season were at the event in Croatia in January, only a month after her father Ronald, a fit 60-year-old, passed away from a heart attack in his sleep after a family dinner. Turgeon had just returned from Switzerland and her father was telling her on the ride home how she was about to attain her objectives in the sport.
‘’My father and I were linked by skiing,’’ she told the Montreal daily La Presse. ‘’It was a common passion and he followed my races even when they were at 3 a.m. back home. I can’t imagine how proud he would be right now to see my success.’’
Liam Hickey, Para Ice Hockey
In his first season as a defenceman with the Canadian national team, Liam Hickey exceeded all expectations. His excellence was recognized this past weekend as he was named the top defenceman at the 2019 World Para Ice Hockey Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
At the worlds, the 21-year-old from St. John’s N.L. dazzled the fans with his deft stick handling and break out speed which allowed him to sneak into offensive plays and make spectacular rushes with the puck.
He also was the top goal scorer at the worlds with eight markers and led all defencemen with 12 points which ranked fourth overall. He was second in the plus-minus department with a +14.
Jon Thurston, Wheelchair Curling
For the first time in his career, Jon Thurston was named to the national wheelchair curling team and played for Canada at the 2019 World Wheelchair Curling Championships as Canada’s second. It was an experience he’ll never forget.
“I don’t know if I can put it in words,” he said. “It was such an honour to represent Canada. I thought we had an amazing team, from the athletes to the staff. We came up a bit short – didn’t make the playoffs, but we had some glimmers, and it was an unbelievable experience for me to meet some of the other countries.”
At 35 years old, Thurston is the youngest player in the national wheelchair curling program. He first picked up the sport in 2012, and last fall participated in selection camps before being considered for the final two spots on the national team in January. Thurston’s performance at the final camp in Moose Jaw, Sask. was outstanding. Despite maintaining the lead throughout camp, Thurston wasn’t complacent and played like he had something to prove.
“It was pretty amazing year this year,” he said. “It seemed like, if you look back on it, it was a gradual build to that [making the national team]. Especially the last couple of years, just been trying to get better and better at it, learning how to practice better. The national program has been huge with the NextGen camps and to teach you more about the game. It’s been pretty amazing to have made the national team.”
Derek Zaplotinsky, Para Nordic Skiing
At the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Prince George, B.C., Derek Zaplotinsky of Smoky Lake, Alta, made a major international impact with three top-five finishes in the men’s sit ski races. He was a career-best fourth in the biathlon short distance race and fifth in two cross-country races, the 15km and middle distance. These results show great improvement from his two ninth-place finishes at the Paralympic Games a year earlier.