Yukoners reflect on Paralympics

Originally set to run between August and September of 2020, there was a very real chance the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games would never happen.

COVID-19 shut down sports across the globe in the spring of 2020, and nearly everything was delayed or outright cancelled.

The decision to postpone the 2020 Olympics and 2020 Paralympics until the summer of 2021 was met with skepticism by many – would it be possible to hold such a large global gathering in Tokyo as COVID-19 continued to wreak havoc with public health efforts around the world?

Ultimately the Paralympics did take place in August and September 2020, and Team Canada turned in an impressive effort.

Canada won 21 medals at the Paralympics – five gold, 10 silver, and six bronze – with eight coming in athletics, three in track cycling, one in judo, eight in swimming, and one in triathlon.

Team Canada finished 19th in total medals and tied for 23rd in gold medals in Tokyo.

This year’s team for Canada was smaller than usual, but among the athletes was the Yukon’s Jessica Frotten.

Frotten, a wheelchair racer, spoke to Yukon Sports Report shortly after returning to Canada from Japan.

“It was kind of surreal,” Frotten said about wearing the maple leaf for her country on the biggest stage. “I’ve been working for this for so long, and then to have the Games postponed in 2020 was such a heartbreak. To just finally get here … it really hit me when we were together – all of Team Canada – and it was just incredible to really reflect on how hard everyone had worked and the crazy road it took to get here for everyone of us.”

Opportunities to see the action in person were almost non-existent for fans, but Frotten said the team still felt the support from across the Pacific.

“I definitely felt the love. My friends and family had little watch parties and got up in the middle of the night or whatever the crazy time difference dictated,” Frotten said. “I missed them so much physically there, but I got so much love and support from around the world. It’s amazing. Sometimes I forget just how many people are following this story and are along for this ride.”

While Frotten’s first Paralympics appearance will go down in history for the strange circumstances, another Yukoner with Team Canada is able to put it in context.

Stephanie Dixon, Team Canada’s chef de mission, has 19 Paralympic medals to her name and explained circumstances posed a challenge for athletes.

“Every athlete, every person in the world, has been affected differently by COVID-19, and every sport and every city has given different restrictions or challenges to different athletes,” Dixon said. “But the theme and the common factor for all athletes was the lack of control. Most high-performance athletes … spend a lot of time focusing on the things they can control and making sure they are doing absolutely everything in their power to create optimal performances.”

The difference, then, this time was the changing parameters for not only training but living as the pandemic progressed and rules changed.

“Athletes, I think, also have a hard time adjusting expectations, so even though these Games there was a lot outside of their control, athletes still expect their best performances,” Dixon said. “They don’t want to make excuse and they don’t want to sell themselves short, but these were absolutely challenging circumstances.”

Hearing Frotten speak about her own race results, Dixon’s words are illustrated.

“I’m a little frustrated with the way I performed over there,” Frotten said. “I think our restrictions (in Canada) were a lot stronger than a lot of other places and it really didn’t help my preparation. I did everything in my power to get ready for these Games, but unfortunately it just wasn’t the same as getting out for some warm weather training camps and actually having some competition.”

Frotten said she was proud to have made the team, as it was the smallest athletics team for Canada ever.

“You had to be top eight in the world to even make the team, so I’m really proud of making the team,” Frotten said.

For now, Frotten is taking a well-deserved trip home to the Yukon before turning her attention back to racing.

“First on the list is I’m coming home,” Frotten said. “I haven’t been home in two years, so I really need to see my family and fill my heart. … This next season is a pretty big one with the Commonwealth Games and, because World Championships were postponed, we have World Championships as well. I don’t know; I feel like going out on the performances I had in Tokyo is not where I would want to leave my athletic career at all. I think getting out there for these next big competitions and really showing what I can do and then who knows? I mean, Paris is only three years away.”

So as Frotten and her teammates return to training with eyes focused on the future, it’s unlikely anyone will forget the 2020 Paralympics – held in 2021 during a pandemic.

“The atmosphere was different without having fans in the stands and it’s just not the same hype and energy and buzz that you would normally experience in the atmosphere of the Paralympic Games,” Dixon said. “For me, when we walked into the opening ceremonies to an empty stadium I didn’t know if it would feel the same, but it actually still gave me goosebumps and almost brought me to tears because as I looked around, each seat, each empty seat, represented 1000s of people that would see these Games from their homes because these were the most viewed Paralympic Games in history. We had more coverage and more engagement from Canadians and the world than ever before so the seats were more symbolic and it was a different vibe, but our athletes knew how much they were supported from home.”

More than that, Dixon is optimistic of the future impacts the Games will have.

“These Games were not only important for the athletes because they deserved to have this opportunity to put this hard work into action, but it was important to the world to have that inspiration and motivation to get back to the sports that they love as well,” Dixon said. “Not only will we see the world get back to sports and activity, but I am very hopeful that it will be in a more inclusive and accessible way because these Paralympic Games have highlighted that everyone deserves sport opportunities.”

And Frotten made it clear the support was appreciated.

“An earth-shaking thank you to everyone that has followed along and stayed up too late or got up too early to scream at their TV. I felt the love, even way over there in Japan.”

Team Canada at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games on Sept. 5, 2021. (Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Photo credit: Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee