Even before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games or Paralympic Games came to Vancouver, the city carved a leading path for the rest of Canada in helping its disabled residents and tourists get around.
Virtually every street corner in Vancouver has cut-in ramps to make crossing a street easily accessible for those using wheelchairs.
All of its transit buses at the airport have wheelchair lifts. It is the same thing with its city bus system. To get a business license in Vancouver, the business must first be wheelchair accessible, and that includes all of the city's restaurants.
Former mayor Sam Sullivan, a quadrapalegic who uses a wheelchair after suffering injuries in a skiing accident, championed that cause. Two years ago, while attending the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Sullivan actually had to be carried up steps to meet a Beijing city leader because the city's offices did not have a ramp. Sullivan was named Canada's ambassador to the Paralympic Winter Games.
Vancouver is more than ready to play host to the Paralympic Winter Games. Nearly every detail has been covered, such as more spacious rooms in the Olympic Village and dining halls so wheelchair-bound athletes can turn around and navigate without bumping into other wheelchairs, or worse, a wall.
"This is my third time here ... and I've found Vancouver is one of the most accessible cities,'' said Andy Yohe, captain of the USA sled hockey team. "And, in terms of transportation, they seem to be way ahead of the curve of metropolitan cities,"
The city's mission, said Nejat Sarp, vice president of services and villages for Vancouver 2010, was "to create a platform for everyone to enjoy themselves."
The Paralympic Winter Games's funding included $32 million from the Canadian government.
"They've done an unbelievable job of creating an environment for the Paralympic athletes in which they can come in and excel, and also enjoy," said Charlie Huebner, USOC Chief of Paralympics.
Although the Olympic Winter Games came to a close Feb. 28, there is a buzz around town as the 10-day Paralympic Winter Games are set to begin tonight with the Opening Ceremony at BC Place. Alpine skier Heath Calhoun will carry the USA flag at the ceremony.
"I'm excited beyond belief," said Dena Coward, Vancouver 2010 director of Paralympic planning. "I think there's been a lot of interest."
The build-up of that Paralympic interest included a 10-day torch relay that began with a torch lighting March 3 in Ottawa, Ontario, and had stops in throughout Canada, including Whistler (the skiing venue) on the way to Vancouver. Six hundred torchbearers participated.
"It was a great turnout at Whistler, a great crowd," Coward said.
Some of the Paralympic competitions in five sports are already sold out. In all, more than 1,300 athletes from 44 nations will compete in alpine and cross-country skiing, biathlon, wheelchair curling and ice sledge hockey. The venues include the Paralympic Centre, Whistler Paralympic Park and UBC Thunderbird Arena.
When the Paralympic Opening Ceremony is held tonight, special wheelchair-accessible shuttle buses will run to and from BC Place, beginning two hours before the event. Accommodations have been made for wheelchairs, scooters and electric carts. Each venue includes wheelchair-accessible entries, viewing areas and designs such as relief areas for guide dogs at UBC Thunderbird Arena, the sledge hockey venue. (For specific information on all Paralympic venues, go to www.vancouver2010.com).
Assisted hearing devices are available at venues, and wheelchairs can be rented.
One of the few concerns, according to Alex Clark, the media relations director for Team USA's sledge hockey team, was the location of the practice ice surface, which is located on the second floor of the Thunderbird Arena, above the main rink.
Venues aside, Sarp's plan was to turn the Olympic Villages at Vancouver and Whistler into a home away from home for the Paralympians. It is, Sarp said, a place where stress doesn't exist, accessibility isn't an issue, and living rooms are available where athletes can congregate and make new friends.
"That really set the foundation for us," Sarp said.
Creating an atmosphere of "home" is precisely what the U.S. Olympic Committee does for its athletes in training.
"We bring the same thing to our training centers," Huebner said.
"The village is beautiful," Yohe said. "Everything seems to be really well set up. They went out of their way to really make things look nice, and the food is unbelievable."
One night, Sarp walked through and saw his dream coming to life. Athletes from the Italian and Swedish wheelchair curling teams were playing against each other in shuffleboard in one of the Village's living rooms.
"That's what we tried to create," Sarp said.
Residence rooms were designed so that handles were on all the bathtubs and all showers accommodated the disabled. Care was taken right down to comfortable bedding, sheets, linen and towels. After the Games, these same rooms will be turned back to the city for housing units.
In the athletes' dining facility, special accommodations had to be made, and not just in the food. During the Olympic Winter Games, athletes would often go to the dining room alone to eat. Paralympians, however, tend to arrive in groups, Sarp said. And since many of them require wheelchairs, more space was vital.
"The food was understandably important," Sarp said. "Because they do arrive as a group, we had to re-configure the dining area."
All of these changes, Coward said, are the "legacy" to be left behind for Vancouver's disabled and able-bodied residents once the Games leave town March 21. Venues will be used for public events. New buildings feature wide hallways and energy efficiency that includes solar energy recovery and waste-heat capture.
"(This is) an opportunity to make improvements," she said. "It really does become a catalyst and an opportunity."
So what about that stress?
"The only stress I have is I don't want it (the Games) to finish," Sarp said.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.
Chrös McDougall, of Red Line Editorial, contributed to this report.