Families were glowing with excitement as they welcomed back the North Okanagan’s most decorated athletes Wednesday night.
People from all over the Okanagan and Shuswap gathered at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre to meet, greet and thank their trio of Paralympic gold medallists, recently returned from the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Ina Forrest, Josh Dueck and Sonja Gaudet were escorted into the hall by two RCMP officers before more than 100 exuberant fans.
Dueck captured gold and silver in para-alpine skiing while Gaudet and Forrest completed the three-peat in wheelchair curling for Canada.
Shellie Shipowick, a kindergarten teacher in Salmon Arm made the long trek to see the champions in Vernon.
“So glad this event got put together. We wanted to come out and celebrate their accomplishments,” said Shipowick.
“It’s truly amazing to see smaller communities come out and support their athletes,” said Forrest.
The athletes took centre stage while several guest speakers from the community saluted their accomplishments.
“Very few people get to represent their country on the international stage,” said Chris Pieper, mayor of Forrest’s home town of Armstrong. “It is a tremendous honour that the athletes, coaches, families and friends should be very proud of. The North Okanagan is very proud to claim you as their very own.”
The champions took time to answer questions from youngsters before the photography and autograph sessions began.
“Going to the Paralympics and having the success we did gives us a chance to be role models for these kids and hopefully help them find their way in life,” said Forrest.
Justin and Matthew Geistlinger got a chance to get a picture with Forrest.
“It’s exciting for us, we are big curlers. I’m hoping my boys can win curling gold one day,” said Chelan Cotter, the boys’ mother. “Their success brings communities together, we needed to show our support. I got very emotional seeing them up there.”
Not only can the North Okanagan boast having three home-grown Paralympic gold medallists, but Vernon is the first community to claim the flag bearer for the opening and closing ceremonies in the same games.
Gaudet was chosen to be the flag bearer in the opening ceremonies while Dueck wrapped up Sochi 2014 with the closing ceremonies.
“I was super stoked when I found out I was going to be a flag bearer. I remember I found out one morning and I jumped out of bed with excitement,” said Dueck.
“I never really realized the power of sport and how it has the ability to bring people together,” said Gaudet. “It was a very special moment for me when during the ceremonies I saw athletes from three previous Paralympic games.”