Vancouver, B.C. - With glowing hearts, Canada welcomed the world's top winter Paralympic athletes Friday, as the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games kicked off with the Opening Ceremony in front of a sold-out crowd of 60,000 spectators.
"While thousands will cheer you on in the stadiums, you can be assured that over 33 million Canadians are living this experience with you," Vancouver Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong told the athletes. "You will feel their energy and their support every minute you are here."
An estimated 1,350 athletes, coaches and officials from 44 countries, including 50 Americans, marching second to last before Canada, entered BC Place Stadium, giving high-fives to 400 children gathered in a welcome path. Team USA was led by flag bearer Heath Calhoun (Bristol, Tenn.), an Iraq war veteran who lost his legs in Mosul while serving with the 101st Airborne Division.
"I am really excited to get in there," Calhoun, who lost both legs above the knees, said before entering the arena. "I am full of emotions. Excited. Nervous. I'm excited to see so many athletes because we don't normally get a lot of fans, so to see many people is great." Calhoun will compete in alpine skiing, beginning with the downhill on Saturday.
Nearly every seat in the house was filled with energetic fans dressed in blue, white and green ponchos and waving pompoms.
"It's kind of crazy," alpine skier John Whitney (Towson, Md.) said. "We came in with a police escort and kinda got a glimpse of the stage. To come back here to see hundreds of athletes, it's kinda cool."
The Paralympic Winter Games feature 64 events in five sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, wheelchair curling and sled hockey.
"To be here you have overcome so much, given so much, sacrificed so much," Furlong said. "Your accomplishments are the result of driving yourselves to achieve what many would say is not achievable. To you impossible is just a word, a distraction."
The ceremony featured an address from Rick Hansen, a Canadian athlete and activist for people with spinal cord injuries, and a moving tribute to Canada's most famous athlete with a physical disablity Terry Fox, a humanitarian who raised awareness for cancer with his Marathon of Hope, before losing his battle at age 22.
"Wonderful stories up there, so inspirational," said curler James Joseph (New Hartford, N.Y.). "It's stories like this that inspire people around the world to never give up even if they have a disability. Never take 'no' for an answer."
Fox's parents Rolly and Betty brought the Paralympic flame into BC Place then passed it to Paralympic alpine skier Daniel Wesley. He handed it to wheelchair basketball gold medalist Marni Abbott-Peter. It was lit by Zach Beaumont, a 15-year-old snowboarder who was dubbed Canada's next Paralympian.
"After this, we're more motivated than ever to put on that USA jersey," sled hockey player James Connelly (Egg Harbor, N.J.) said.
The ceremony also featured six extreme athletes with physical disabilities, including American Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham, performing tricks on bikes and in wheelchairs. "I really have to say the half pipe with the bikes and the wheelchair, I think that made it for me for sure," said Nordic skier Monica Bascio (Evergreen, Colo.).
Musicians including 15-year-old Nikki Yanofsky, who sang the Canadian national anthem in the Opening Ceremony of last month's Olympic Winter Games, and Fefe Dobson performed.
"Just like any other Opening Ceremonies it marks the beginning of the Games, and I'm ready for the Games to begin," said alpine skier Alana Nichols (Farmington, N.M.), who will race for a gold medal Saturday morning in the downhill. "I'm going to try to live in the moment as much as I can right now but I've definitely got that race on my mind."
The Paralympic Winter Games run through March 21.