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Canadian athletes faced tough challenges amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. Training facilities shuttered for weeks at a time. Opportunities to compete internationally were few and far between because of travel restrictions.

And so, Josh Dueck isn’t setting a medal target for Canada’s team at the Beijing Paralympics, which open on Friday. It’s too difficult to gauge where Canada stacks up against the rest of the world.

“The reality is that there’s no real context or point of reference to make an educated statement in terms of how we can predict our athletes will do,” said Dueck, Canada’s chef de mission for the Paralympics.

“What I will say is that our teams look good, and more than looking good, I feel a lot of gratitude amongst the ranks, the athletes are just so thankful to be here. There’s that sigh of relief, and just an overwhelming sense of positivity. So, when you blend those things, I think the sky’s the limit.”

Canada has 49 athletes competing in Beijing, down slightly from the largest ever team of 54 athletes who captured 28 medals – eight gold, four silver and 16 bronze – four years ago in Pyeongchang.

They’ll compete in hockey, curling, alpine and Nordic skiing and snowboarding over 10 days.

The athletes range from veterans Brian McKeever, a 17-time Paralympic medallist in Nordic skiing, and eight-time biathlon and Nordic skiing medallist Mark Arendz, to promising rookie snowboarders Tyler Turner and Lisa DeJong. Turner captured two gold and a bronze at the recent world championships, while DeJong came home with a gold and two silvers.

While Dueck won’t predict how many medals Canada might win in the coming days, just getting to Beijing amid COVID-19 was a major victory. A positive test in the past couple of weeks likely would have meant that athlete would have been staying home.

“The herculean task is simply arriving safely,” Dueck said. “Definitely there’s a sigh of relief. Myself, the staff and certainly, from the athletes that I’ve run into so far, definitely seems pretty consistent that – phew! This is what they’ve worked for, for the last four years, eight years, 12 years. And now it’s time to shine.

“There’s something pretty magical, as soon as you step into that [Olympic bubble], there’s just something special, very Peter Pan about the experience.”

The Games will open on Friday without athletes from Russia and Belarus. Faced with threats of withdrawals and growing animosity in the Athletes Village, organizers of the Paralympics expelled athletes from those two countries in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The about-face came less than 24 hours after the International Paralympic Committee announced it would allow Russians and Belarusians to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as neutral athletes with colours, flags and other national symbols removed because of the invasion of Ukraine.

The motto for Canada’s team in Beijing is “elevate, motivate, unite,” and Dueck, a three-time Paralympic medallist in skiing and the first sit-skier to complete a backflip on snow (in 2012), hopes the Paralympics can bring “some solace to some people.”

“And maybe it reminds people of the better parts of humanity and how we should treat each other as human beings. Sport’s a really good example of that. So here’s to hoping.”

Greg Westlake, who’s making his fifth Paralympic appearance with Canada’s Para-hockey team, hopes to help Canada reclaim gold after a heartbreaking overtime loss to the U.S. in the gold-medal game four years ago, and Ina Forrest, a two-time curling gold medallist, will carry Canada’s flag in the opening ceremony on Friday.

Canada finished second in total medals to the U.S. four years ago.

Dueck hopes, no matter how many times the team climbs the podium in Beijing, that Canadian athletes enjoy the moment.

“Maybe I’m biased, because that was the general approach that I took to my sport when I was competing is if you’re thankful for what is and just really appreciate the moment, then you open that door for possibility.”