Alana Ramsay skied across the finish line, looked up at her time, and let out a whoop of delight.
The 27-year-old from Calgary captured a bronze medal in the women’s Alpine super-G to highlight a three-medal performance for Canada at the Beijing Paralympics on Sunday. It was as good as gold in her first season back racing after a “horrific” crash in 2019 completely derailed her confidence.
“I didn’t feel fully comfortable. It felt like I lost part of my soul,” Ramsay said of her lengthy recovery.
Ramsay raced to two bronze medals at the 2018 Paralympics, but in training for the 2019 world championships in Sella Nevea, Italy, she hit a hole and went sailing through the protective netting. She figures she “tomahawked” — cartwheeled end over end, like a thrown axe — a good seven times before coming to a stop.
“I got up to tell the tale thank goodness,” Ramsay said.
But memories of the crash lingered. She had trouble falling asleep.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened,” she said.
She was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and between her recovery and the COVID-19 pandemic that grounded Canada’s Para ski team for more than a year, she didn’t compete again until this season.
Ramsay’s bronze kicked off a strong day on the snow for Canada. Alexis Guimond of Gatineau, Que., matched Ramsay’s bronze in the men’s standing super-G. Both skiers have cerebral palsy. And Collin Cameron of Canmore, Alta., was third in the 18-kilometre cross-country sitting ski race.
Canada has six medals through two days of the Games.
Ramsay, who learned to ski upon the recommendation of her physiotherapist to better manage her cerebral palsy, crossed the finish line in one minute 16.84 seconds, holding onto bronze by just 0.09 seconds. Zhang Mengqiu of China won gold while France’s Marie Bochet took home silver.
Ramsay worked with a sports psychologist to overcome her PTSD, and finally began to regain confidence during national team training last month at Whistler, B.C.
The COVID-19 pandemic had compounded Ramsay’s mental health struggles. She felt isolated, and found comfort in her dog Ember, an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix.
“She’s the light of my life, so I had spent a lot of time with my dog, which was a blessing in disguise because she lifted my spirits and she helps me out in so many ways that I couldn’t imagine without her anymore,” Ramsay said.
“So, I trained really hard during the pandemic, and I focused on what I needed to focus on, not just skiing but finding joy in life again.”
Guimond, who raced to a time of 1:10.02 to finish behind China’s Liang Jingyi and Markus Salcher of Austria, found a silver lining in the pandemic.
“Even though it was full of hardships,” the 22-year-old said. “It was not always easy to find training or to compete or to travel. It was lot of time for introspection, to set my priorities straight, and to work on myself.”
He prioritized strength work, putting in more hours in the weight room than ever before. He also focused on his mental preparation.
“I’ve become a stronger athlete as a result,” he said. “It’s been a big learning curve for me, but I think in a way it was a blessing in disguise.”
Guimond drew inspiration from the Canadian ski team’s performance at last month’s Olympics, particularly Jack Crawford’s bronze medal in alpine combined.
The Paralympian similarly hopes to inspire Canadian kids with disabilities. Guimond fell off a countertop when he was six months old, suffering paralysis on the right side of his body. A stroke at the age of 12 left him in a coma for three days. He didn’t walk for weeks and suffered some paralysis on his left side. He holds just one ski pole, in his left hand.
“I think a lot of kids with disabilities, especially cerebral palsy, they’re not introduced to sport,” Guimond said. “I think it’s important to kids … to get out there and do sports. I think it’s also great to bring awareness to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.”
Cameron, meanwhile, raced to an historic bronze in the sit-ski distance race, becoming the first Canadian to climb the podium in the event.
Cameron crossed in 47:36.6 to win his fourth career Paralympic medal.
“We talk about those perfect races, and so far just on thinking about today, that was probably the one perfect race that I have had in my career,” Cameron said. “I honestly don’t think I could have raced it any better today. I did exactly what I needed to do and where I needed to do it. It just feels great.”
Zheng Peng won the six-lap race at Zhangjakou National Biathlon Centre in 43:09.2, while Chinese teammate Mao Zhongwu was second (43:23.8).
Cameron, who originally played Para hockey before switching to skiing, said his performance was all about pacing.
“Because it is so easy to blow up at altitude out here with it being a six-lap race so I needed to just have control,” said Cameron, who found another gear over the final lap. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t feel awesome today, but it really hasn’t sunk in yet to be honest. I need a few more hours to process what just happened today because it was completely unexpected.”
Canada’s curling team improved to 3-0 after a bizarre 10-3 win over Latvia.
At the conclusion of the first end, a game assistant moved a rock that needed to be measured before it was confirmed as a second counter for Canada. The officials decided that because it wasn’t the fault of either team, Canada could either take the single point or opt to play the end again.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Dennis Thiessen, Canada’s second. “In all the games I’ve played over the years — never seen it.”
The Canadians scored four in the replay of the first end.
“It was a challenge to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, and regroup,” said skip Mark Ideson. “But I feel like we were able to do that, and stay patient. We got a break and were able to put up a big number.”
Canada, alone at the top of the standings, play the U.S. and Sweden on Monday.
Lori Ewing – The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2022.
Feature image – Andy Wong – The Canadian Press