Devin Heroux is in Santiago, Chile to report on the Para Pan Am Games.
Amidst an atmosphere of excitement, anxiety and anticipation with the backdrop of the picturesque Andes mountains in the Chilean capital of Santiago, the Canadian flag-bearers for the seventh edition of the Parapan Am Games were announced Wednesday morning by the Canadian Paralympic Committee.
Shelley Gautier, a 55-year-old cyclist from Niagara Falls, Ont.,, and Rob Shaw, a 33-year-old wheelchair tennis player from North Bay, Ont.,, have been named flag-bearers for Canada to lead the team of 140 athletes into the opening ceremony on Friday.
“It was pretty shocking. It’s not something I would ever be in the conversation for. There were no hints or anything. There was none of that. It came completely out of the blue,” Shaw said after being informed of the honour earlier this week. “We’re humble people and downplay our own achievements. I’ve had a great career and year as well on tour, but there are so many deserving athletes for this.”
Competition runs Nov. 17-26 and will be streamed live on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem. Friday’s opening ceremony is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET.
Shaw enters these Games as the defending Parapan Am Games champion in the quad category in wheelchair tennis, having won gold four years ago in Lima. Those were his first international games for Canada.
“I can still picture the village and bus rides and a lot of clear, happy memories from there,” Shaw said. “I wasn’t prepared for how emotional I got going into those ceremonies. It was overwhelming. Now I get to help lead the team.”
18-time world champion
Gautier is no stranger to international competition having represented Canada at world championships, three Paralympics and now her third Parapan Ams.
As one of the veterans on the team, she wants to provide the next generation with confidence.
“I’m getting older and there are younger kids coming up. All I want to do is inspire them and show them what I’ve done and let them know they can do it too. They can bring hope and joy to Canada,” Gautier said.
Gautier is an 18-time world champion, won a bronze medal for Canada at the 2016 Paralympics and has won two silver medals at the Parapan Ams in road cycling.
But this is so much more than that for Gautier. She also founded the Shelley Gautier Para-Sport Foundation to bring Para sport to more people with a disability.
“It’s really important we get more disabled people involved in the Paralympics and involved in sport. I’m just honoured they picked me. Hopefully I can be a representative to help younger kids,” she said. “We want to win some medals, have fun and inspire people.”
Both Gautier and Shaw also want to use this experience to help build momentum for the Canadians leading into the Paris Paralympics next summer.
Shaw said he felt unstoppable after winning the title four years ago and was playing some of the best tennis in his career. Then the pandemic put everything on pause and he wasn’t able to find that momentum he had gained at the delayed Tokyo Paralympics in 2021.
‘Hungry to defend gold’
“It was unfortunate with COVID-19 happening,” he said. “I did feel that the Lima victory put me on a different trajectory. If I can establish myself as a favourite at this tournament and pull it off, it makes it harder for my opponents to play with confidence moving forward.”
Currently ranked eighth in the quad division, Shaw said he’s expecting a battle in Santiago.
“This is one of the most competitive tournaments of the year outside of the majors. There are five players ranked inside the top-12 in the Americas,” Shaw said. “I’m hungry to defend that gold. It’s mine and I want it to stay mine.”
Gautier, who is from Niagara Falls, and Shaw, from North Bay, Ont., are still in Canada training ahead of the Games. They’ll both arrive in Santiago on Friday morning.
Most of the Canadian team is already in Santiago and have been training ahead of their competitions. Gautier said she hopes fans back in Canada get behind the team and support the athletes throughout the event.
“I think the fans are very important people. We can’t do this without them. In Tokyo we didn’t have fans and it was terrible,” Gautier said. “We’ll have our smiles and have everyone feeling good for Canada.”
As Canada continues to prepare for the Games, organizers are completing their final tasks to be ready to open the event on Friday.
Just days ahead of the opening ceremony there was a cacophony of noise outside of Estadio Nacional as crews clanged hammers and volunteers bustled around the historic sporting venue, putting the final touches on things ahead of the Games.
It’s hard to miss that the Games are taking place in the city with signs and artwork plastered inside metro stations, along fences and on billboards.
This is the first time both the Pan Am and Parapan Games are being held in Santiago and there’s a sense of pride that exudes from the volunteers at the venues as they welcome athletes from more than 30 different countries.
Over the course of 11 days Para athletes are participating in 17 different sport disciplines and in some cases have the opportunity to qualify for the Paralympics in Paris.