With that came the end of my competitions for these Paralympic Games. Over the next few hours a lot happened, some of my Games highlights actually. Right away, Brian came across the finish line to win his third Gold medal in Sochi. Bringing him to a career ten Paralympic Gold medals, and 13 Paralympic medals total. The next highlight was when my roommate Chris destroyed the Men’s sit ski field to take Gold. This medal means a lot. It was Chris’ first Paralympic medal, it was also the Gold medal that pushed Canada from fourth to third in the medal standings. I was so stoked for Chris, watching that race on my computer as I packed. I’ve been his roommate for the past four years and to see him win that medal I was so excited. I have to say the Closing Ceremonies was a definite highlight. First, how big the scale was. Walking into the stadium and looking in every direction, seeing thousands of people. To be part of that celebration, right there in the middle of it! For me it was all the more impressive since I missed the Opening Ceremonies. When I was there it is all about absorbing the atmosphere, the excitement. Watching the Ceremony on television you get to see so much more but you can never replace the thrill of being right there in the moment.
As the Ceremony ended the athletes flooded onto the stage. A huge mix of athletes, staff and performers took over the Fisht Stadium. Volunteers and performers wanted some many photos of anyone in Canadian clothing. Then to be a Canadian with medals well… One person would ask for a picture and before I moved again I would have taken two dozen photos. It may have been something simple but it was such a great time out on that stage. Athletes were taking pictures everywhere, trading hats and jackets, it was an awesome chaos. After a while we were ushered out of the stadium and taken to the Coastal Village. Food was the next priority, once I got inside the Dining Hall I went straight for the in-house McDonalds. So did almost everyone else. From there we headed across the street to the Games Lounge to hang out until our 4:00 bus to the Airport. We had all our baggage tagged up in the Endurance Village so the team breezed through the airport. Got on Charter flight to see that there was almost no one on it and had a whole row to myself. I spread out and fell asleep, waking up as we landed in Munich. In Munich ate some breakfast, hit up the lounge showers and felt all refreshed for the next segment of the travel. Munich to Toronto, where we would be greeted by a crowd at the Arrivals area and did a few interviews with the media. It was a short layover before I boarded for the final leg of the journey to Canmore. Arriving in Calgary to another warm welcome was incredible. The past two days of excitement and travel were catching up. Just over an hour after leaving the Calgary Airport I was home in Canmore. Didn’t waste any time in getting to my bed and was out like a light.
The last week has been interesting to say the least. The first day I was back I found a card and a little Canadian flag under the windshield wiper of my car saying “Congratulations Mark. You made our hearts swell with pride!” In those first few days I had a few people yell across a street ‘congrats’ or ‘way to go’. Dealing with jetlag occupied the majority of the first week back in Canada. I started a few movies after supper but don’t remember finishing them; I would just wake up on the couch by 22:00 then go to bed. By the fifth day I was beginning to feel like sleep was getting normal. Then did a mini-media tour in Calgary along with Brian. Friday morning was Breakfast Television on CityTV. It was a great surprise to meet up with Olympic Bobsledder Jesse Lumsden on the show. Chilled in Calgary until the evening where Brian and I, along with Robin and his son were special guests of the Calgary Flames for that night’s game. We did a quick interview in one of the timeouts. Right at the beginning of the first intermission a couple of kids came up to us asking for a photo. So it began, before I could blink there was a line forming. So we spent the entire intermission taking photos with people, giving them the opportunity to wear the medals and posing for pictures. Same thing happened again during the second intermission. It was a lot of fun, busy but fun. The next morning we were up early again for the Morning Show on Global. It is not until you come home that you realize the power of a medal. The pride in everyone for an athlete wearing a medal and their journey to earn that medal.
Four years ago I took one of my biggest steps in developing as an athlete. Experiencing the Paralympic Games for the first time was overwhelming. To add to that was the fact that my first Games were a home Games. Vancouver was where I started to see what it took to be one of the best skiers in the World. What I experienced in Whistler fueled the drive over the past four years. Each year of the last four has been a whirlwind of success and defeats. There were countless lessons to be learnt from defeat, it is how I grew stronger. But I know I’m not there yet because I’m still learning from success as well. When I won races in the past, I took pride in that but also asked what did I do to have such a race? What do I still need to do to get better? This question was my theme song since Vancouver. The 2010 Paralympic Games was where I realized what I wanted to do. Flying home from Vancouver I would never have imagined I’d come this far. Each year was a huge step forward in training, in ability, mindset and experience. It all came together, allowing me to have some of my greatest races here in Sochi. That is what the Games are for, putting down your very best on the day and testing it against the World. For me Vancouver was about the Paralympic experience, taking it all in, taking part in everything. Like the last four years, Sochi had tremendous successes and trying times but I wouldn’t change a thing. I went into Sochi seeking perfection. What I found was a lesson; that you don’t find perfection, you train to be as close to it as possible.
It was astonishing to see the transformation that had occurred in Sochi in a year’s time. From everything being a construction site to a jewel upon the Black Sea. There had been a lot of talk that Russia would not be ready in time for the Games. Not the case, they were ready and more then. They hosted a unbelievable Games. The volunteers make the Games possible; in Sochi the volunteers did an outstanding job. They were beyond helpful and always smiling. At the Closing Ceremonies it was mentioned that the Games had created a new volunteer culture in Russia. It was proudly showcased throughout the Games. If I had to find one downside it was the fact that everything was so spread out. Part of the Paralympic experience is to be with all the other athletes. Meet new people, see something new. That just wasn’t possible. Partly because of what I do, I could have raced six days of the ten at the Games. Between races the best thing for me to do is rest and prepare for the next race. Even more so because I wasn’t feeling well. If it had been possible I would have enjoyed an opportunity to watch some Alpine competitions live or cheer on Canada in Sledge Hockey. To get to the Alpine venue it almost took an hour of gondolas and bus rides. To get to the Coastal village, well that was easily an hour or more of traveling. The Games had a distinct glorified World Cup feel to it. It’s not a bad thing, it allowed for fewer distractions and I could focus solely on the task at hand. But there was that missing element where the athletes are together. I took a quick glance at the venues for Korea; it will be a very different feel in four years’ time.
It has been a remarkable journey. The Paralympics are not only about the two weeks in March but the journey that gets you there. My second Paralympic Games were extraordinary, both for the success as well as the experience. I take as much pride in the Sochi Games as I do with the journey getting there. Knowing who I was in 2010 and who I have become now in 2014 that is the real value I take from this journey.