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100 days to Paralympics: Anderson says a medal in Tokyo would be "extra heavy"

Patrick Anderson has captured four Paralympic and four world championship medals over his stellar wheelchair basketball career.

Patrick Anderson has captured four Paralympic and four world championship medals over his stellar wheelchair basketball career.

But he says if he and his Canadian teammates can climb the medal podium at the upcoming Paralympics — amid a global pandemic that pushed back the Tokyo Games by a year — that medal will mean a whole lot more.

"In one sense, there's a bit of a buffer built in, because just to get there with the team, and for the Games to happen at all and to be back on the court playing and representing Canada is going to feel like a win on some level," Anderson said.

"(We're still) going there with that competitive fire to try to win. But it's almost like playing with house money. I'm really proud of all the success that I've been part of with Team Canada, but quite frankly, winning a medal in 2021 will feel tougher than anything that we've had to face in the past. That medal would be extra heavy — in a good way."

Sunday marks 100 days out from the opening of the Paralympics — a date that the sports world sometimes seems to be reeling towards after months of travel restrictions, facility shutdowns, event cancellations and vaccine angst.

"It's been a challenge, especially with training and everything," said wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos, a seven-time Paralympic medallist. "It's been a challenge for everybody. But I just finally got access to a track three weeks ago. And so 100 days is coming really quick."

The 41-year-old Anderson, widely considered the world's greatest player, stepped away from the team before the Rio Olympics, but was in the periphery helping Canada prepare. 

"Then I just got excited about making a run with this particular group of players, they just sort of without trying to or being aware of it, lured me back in," said Anderson. 

It hasn't been easy. He and his wife Anna Paddock — together they make up the Indie singer-songwriter duo "The Lay Awakes" — have lived in New York for a decade. With travel restrictions, Anderson hasn't been able to play with his Canadian teammates during the pandemic.

"The hardest part has been just so much training alone, and at my age, dealing with some of the physical and mental limits of a solo training environment," said Anderson, who lost his legs below the knee when he was struck by a drunk driver at the age of nine. "Instead of playing basketball, I'm doing laps around the track and things of that nature.

"It's frustrating, to be quite honest, but on the other hand we've been very blessed in the last year, how we've been able to cope with the pandemic."

Canada won 29 medals at the 2016 Paralympics — eight gold, 10 silver and 11 bronze.

About 130 athletes are expected to compete for Canada at the Tokyo Paras, which run Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Negative noise around the Games has grown louder in recent weeks as Japan grapples with climbing COVID cases. A state of emergency in Tokyo and Osaka was extended on Wednesday to more parts of the country.

Lakatos said it's tough to tune out.

"One of my worries is if the Olympics (July 23 to Aug. 8) goes off and they have a big COVID outbreak in the athletes village, are they going to cancel the Paralympics?" said Lakatos, who suffered a blood clot in his spine when he slid into ice rink boards at the age of six. 

Stephanie Dixon, Canada's chef de mission for the Tokyo Paralympics, said her message to athletes is focus on what they can control. 

"And be aware of what you're exposing yourself to, because there are a lot of distractions out there right now," she said. "There are still a lot of unknowns out there, and we can't control that. So no matter what the circumstances are, be ready to adapt and be flexible. 

"And I've been so impressed with the level of preparation from our athletes in less than ideal circumstances."

Dixon captured 19 Paralympic swimming medals, including seven gold, over three Games. 

"When people are wondering why are these Games are being held, and there is risk to holding the Olympics and the Paralympics, but we can't underestimate the power of sharing a common goal and purpose and feeling connected," she said. "That's what the Olympics and the Paralympics offer to the world. And just seeing that demonstration of the human spirit, it reminds you of your own humanity and your own spirit and your own passion for life. 

"And so if these Games can be pulled off in a healthy and safe way, it could be exactly what the world needs right now."

Lakatos, who lives in Loughborough, England, with his wife and fellow Paralympian Stefanie Reid, said it's important that the Games are done in a way that doesn't pose a major risk to the Japanese people. 

"I think it's also important that the Olympics go on," he said. "Sport means a lot to a lot of people. I got into sport because I wanted to be the best me that I could be, and try to beat the best at their best. I think that's true of anything in life. The Olympics and Paralympics are just a microcosm of everybody just trying to do their best.

"That's why the Olympics and Paralympics are so popular, people like to see somebody doing something at such a high level."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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