TORONTO – Marco Dispaltro turned joyous 360s in his motorized wheelchair down the straightaway of the track Friday night, the Maple Leaf flapping behind him.
The world No. 1-ranked boccia player in his category led the largest Parapan Am Games team Canada has ever assembled into the opening ceremony at the new stadium at York University, almost two weeks to the day after the curtain came down on the Pan American Games.
Canada’s team of 216 athletes, clad in red and grey, and red Maple Leaf caps, wheeled and walked into the stadium, to the roar of the crowd.
With some-1,600 athletes from 28 countries – nine more countries than were represented four years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico – these are the largest Parapan Ams in history, and the first ever held in Canada.
All 15 sports are qualifiers for next summer’s Rio Paralympics.
“We are standing in the path of something unstoppable – the road to Rio,” Saad Rafi, CEO of Toronto’s organizing committee, told the crowd. “To everyone I say: get ready, get ready to set your own sights higher. When we see these athletes compete, we forget about disabilities, we think about capabilities.”
Dispaltro, a resident of St-Jerome, Que., headlines a Canadian team that is gunning for a top-three finish in total medals. Canada finished fifth four years ago in Mexico.
The Canadians will be pushed by the large teams from Brazil and the United States.
Canada has a strong history in Paralympic sports, and that was evident Friday night.
Two torches were carried in by Steve Daniel and Dominic Larocque, who were both injured while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. Daniel went on to compete in rowing at the 2008 Paralympics, while Larocque was a member of the Canadian team that won bronze in sledge hockey at the 2014 Paralympics.
They passed the torch to CBC’s Rick Mercer, who handed off to Rick Hansen – best known for his “Man in Motion” trip around the world.
Chantal Petitclerc, the most decorated athlete in Canadian history, and one of the world’s most successful Paralympians, lit the cauldron to the roar from the athletes assembled in the infield.
Jose Luis Campo, the president of the Americas Paralympic Committee, called the ceremony the “starting gun to the most important period in the history of the Paralympic Movement in the Americas.”
He praised Toronto for the accessible venues that have been built for the two Games.
“These Games have already had a huge impact on this city and its surrounding area,” Campo said. “The future for Toronto and the Paralympic movement in the Americas is extremely bright.”
The Paralympic flag was carried in by a who’s who of Canadian Paralympic athletes and advocates – Arnold Boldt, Tim McIsaac, Chelsey Gotell, Paul Rosen, Robert Hampson, David Shannon, Patrick Jarvis and Robert Steadward.
Produced by B5C – a combined team of Toronto-based production company BaAM and FiveCurrents – the festive ceremony was a celebration of one of the world’s most diverse and culturally inclusive cities.
Rising Toronto pop star Francesco Yates was the headliner of a production that required more than 40 volunteer hair and makeup artists, more than 500 costumes, 1,000,000 bobby pins, 100-plus sets of eyelashes, and 250 theatrical lights.
The first-ever Parapan Ams were in 1999 in Mexico City, and it wasn’t until 2007 – in Rio de Janeiro – that the Parapan Ams and Pan Ams were held in the same city.