Before you could see them, you could hear them.
Moments before the official athletes’ village team welcome Thursday, the host nation’s Parapan Am team were belting out a practice round of “O Canada.” The team may have been practising, but the energy felt like game time.
“We all got together at the bottom of our building and we started to Canada ourselves up with flags and flag banners and hockey sticks with flags,” said chef de mission Elisabeth Walker-Young.
Yes, hockey sticks with flags.
“It’s the summer games, and yet what you see are flags being supported by hockey sticks,” said former Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley. “If the red and white doesn’t let you know you’re in Canada, the hockey sticks suspending the maple leaf flag — that lets you know for sure.”
The chanting helped, too. “We just chanted Canada! Canada! Canada! all the way here,” Walker-Young said after leading the red-and-white uniformed team into the main square of the village to sing, chant and dance.
“I got a sore throat; I think I was singing too much,” said wheelchair rugby player David Willsie. “I’m from London, Ont., so this my home soil right here.”
Cries of “This is our house!” rang out throughout the ceremony.
For Quebec swimmer Aurelie Rivard, competing on home soil is a thrill after her debut at the London 2012 Summer Paralympics.
“It’s such a unique experience,” she said. “You really feel like this is home. You feel the support from everybody, from the volunteers and the staff and even just the Canadians here. It’s amazing.”
For Onley, who has visited Paralympic teams in the Vancouver, London, and Beijing Games, seeing the maple leaf raised in an athletes’ village in the shadow of the CN Tower was extra special.
“It’s quite a remarkable moment,” he said. “To be able to be with them right here, not just in Canada, but in my hometown, it’s really something.”
Canada is fielding 216 athletes, the largest team of para-athletes in the nation’s history.
The Parapan Ams run Aug. 7-15.
The Games officially kick off with an opening ceremony Friday night. Competition begins Saturday in 12 sports, including wheelchair rugby, swimming and sitting volleyball.