As the Parapan Am Games wound down, Team Canada chef de mission Elizabeth Walker-Young was losing her voice.
“So that’s a good sign,” she told the Star ahead of Saturday’s final day of competition.
There were lots of good signs for Canada at these Games. The 216-strong team secured a second-place finish in the medal standings with 168 — behind Brazil (257) and ahead of the United States (135) — set world records, and earned coveted spots at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.
And the possibilities that came from perseverance and sacrifice gave Walker-Young goose bumps.
“I was an athlete back in my day, I retired 10 years ago, so I know the blood, sweat, tears, commitment, things that people have given up to be here,” she said.
Canadians started strong, with 15 medals on Day 1, including golds in swimming, boccia, and road cycling.
By the end, they had won 43 medals in athletics, and 91 in swimming.
Nineteen-year-old Aurelie Rivard won seven medals, six of them gold, and set a new world record, 59.17 seconds, in the 100-metre freestyle S10, with Americas or Parapan records in every other race at Scarborough’s Parapan Am Aquatics Centre and Field House.
The one place the Games weren’t breaking records was in attendance.
“I think we really, to be honest, would have liked to have seen more people in the crowd,” Walker-Young said.
While the Pan Ams surpassed one million tickets sold of 1.2 million available, the Parapans were far off course for similar numbers.
Wheelchair rugby, basketball, and tennis had sellouts, but less than half the 200,000 tickets were sold going into the final days of competition.
Organizers estimated “close to 85,000” tickets were sold as of Thursday, with 12 competitions to go, a spokesperson said in an email.
Despite early start times and weekday schedules, chants of “Ca-na-da! Eh! Eh! Eh!” rang out from archery and football-7s. Summer camp kids were brought in to bolster the stands at judo and track events. And though the stands might not have been filled, the Games’ official broadcaster, CBC, reported five million Canadians tuned into the opening weekend.
Organizers hoped to send the energy levels up for the last day of competition with a social media campaign aiming for a #SoldOutSaturday. CBC host Rick Mercer, Mayor John Tory, and Toronto police chief Mark Saunders were among the athletes and civic leaders behind the campaign.
A sold-out crowd can make all the difference, said Walker-Young. A four-time Paralympian, she was treated to sold-out crowds at every Games since her first in 1992 in Barcelona, she said.
“That’s what Canadians, and Torontonians, and Ontarians need to know. To be able to race in front of a whole crowd is awe inspiring. It helps you as an athlete because you get to showcase how hard you’ve worked and that it was worth it.”
Swimmer Katarina Roxon has been to the Paralympic Games twice before, in London and Beijing, but the sound of the hometown crowd during the Parapans was incomparable, she said.
“The crowds there are a bit bigger than the crowds here, but the amount of cheering and the amount of Canadians in the crowd — so much more here,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s so amazing.”
From the water, Roxon could hear the crowd as she came up for breath during her 100-metre breaststroke SB8 race.
“Every single time I took a breath I heard them. So I was just trying to gun it to the wall as fast as I could.”
Roxon won gold in that race, as well as three silvers and a bronze during the Games.
Some Canadians athletes will get a taste of the Paralympic crowds thanks to their performances at these Games. The gold-medal wheelchair rugby team, both wheelchair basketball teams (silver), and men’s goalball (bronze) are among the teams that secured berths for the Rio 2016 Games.
If they do travel to Brazil together, Walker-Young is confident the pack will be strong after bonding at these hometown Games.
“Team Canada gelled as one and that’s what we wanted.”