Not their first rodeo 

12/03/2021

How Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls are preparing for Beijing

 

About a month before any major world sporting event, you could find Mark Arendz in his happy place: a wooded trail. Whether that’s in Lake Louise, Alberta, Sweden, Norway, or Japan, the decorated para nordic skier from Hartsville, PEI, gears up in the early morning and descends one of those trails. Snow glitters with frost, and it’s so quiet that the only sound is skis cutting through fresh powder. “It gets to the point of a meditative state,” Arendz says. 

It’s a calm and peaceful ritual that can last for upwards of three hours. And it’s the final deep breath before he embarks into the sometimes chaotic nature of major championships, like the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships or the Paralympic Winter Games.

Arendz competed in his first Paralympic Games one week after he turned 20-years-old. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into in Vancouver,” he reflects on the 2010 Games. “Flying home, I realized the Games are a very different beast.” Reason being, athletes train their entire career to compete for just one week. “I very much understand that now, and that’s where I’m excelling. I’m thinking four years in advance,” he says. “I don’t even think about the Games. I think about March 5th, the first day I perform.” 

With multiple Games under his belt — including Sochi 2014, his first Games away from Canada, and Pyeongchang 2018, where he was honoured as Canada’s flag-bearer for the closing ceremony — Arendz’s experience informs how he approaches major competitions. Each time, he demands a new level of performance from himself. It certainly shows. In the last Winter Paralympics, he won a medal in every event he competed in: one gold, two silver, and three bronze, making him the first Canadian to win six medals at a single Winter Games. 

The Olympics bring about stress, pressure, and emotional highs — it is the biggest tournament in the world, after all. On the other side of the globe, in a different timezone, Canada can seem far away. But Halifax’s Jill Saulnier of Women’s Ice Hockey says the unknowns are made easier with teammates who have your back. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Saulnier says of her first Olympics in 2018. “But I had such an experienced support group around me that it made the transition and experience that much easier.”

Before their first game in Pyeongchang, there was an air of excitement in the quiet dressing room. “We had quite a few rookies on our team. It was a big day for everybody,” Saulnier reflects. One experienced teammate, decorated veteran Haley Irwin, reminded them to take it all in. Look around: at the stands, the flags, the rings. Don’t go 100 miles an hour, really try to absorb that you’re here. You did it. This made an impression on Saulnier. “I was able to calm down and say, I'm going to enjoy the next 20 minutes and be proud of myself,” she says. “Then it was game time.”

 

Photo Credit:  Mark Arendz wins gold in men's standing biathlon, Copyright Scott Grant

Canada forward Jillian Saulnier (11) alone in front of United States goaltender Madeline Rooney (35) during the Ice Hockey Women Play-offs Finals between Canada and USA at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Hockey Centre on February 22, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea (Photo by Vincent Ethier/COC)