June 25th, 2024

Ceremony cheers on local Paralympic athlete

By Herald on August 27, 2021.

Fraser Taylor and his brother Stefan shoot some hoops in wheelchair basketball Friday morning at Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden as part of a ceremony honouring local Paralympic athlete Payden Vair. Herald photo by Dale Woodard

Dale Woodard – Lethbridge Herald

Payden Vair has never been known to ease her way into something.

For that, the athlete from Cardston is now serving it up on the international stage at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games as a member of Canada’s seated volleyball team.

On Friday morning at Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, a special ceremony hosted by the Lethbridge Sport Council was held to honour the southern Alberta athlete and the obstacles she has overcome.

In July of 2018, Vair – then Payden Olsen and a member of the Lethbridge College Kodiaks women’s soccer team – was injured in a lawnmower accident, resulting in the amputation of her right leg below the knee as well as reconstruction of her left heel.

A little over three years later, Vair is donning the Maple Leaf in Japan as Team Canada looks to rebound against Team Italy tonight at 11 p.m., local time, following a thrilling, but tough, five-set loss to Brazil to begin the games early Friday morning.

On hand at Friday’s ceremony, Vair’s parents, Rick and Kris Olsen, noted their daughter’s refusal to slow down in the face of adversity which has been thrown her way the past three years.

“Anytime Payden got hurt her friend said ‘Give her three minutes and she’ll be back,’” said Rick, who along with Kris donned a red shirt stating “2 Cute for 2 Feet” with “#Team Payden” on the back. “So basically, this is her three years and she’s back. She doesn’t stay down very long. She doesn’t like to do anything very slow. She has to do things at a very quick pace.”

Even her stay at the hospital after the accident was quick.

“Her stay in the hospital that was supposed to be four months, she lasted three weeks in the hospital,” said Rick. “She went from laying in bed to walking very quickly. Nothing is going to stop her, whether it’s one leg or two legs. She’s ready to run as fast as she can run. Watch out world, she’s coming.”

Vair has been a member of the Seated Volleyball team since 2019, making her debut at the 2019 Parapan Am Games in Lima where the team won a bronze medal just one year after the life-changing accident. In February of last year she helped Canada secure a spot for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo by winning gold at the World ParaVolley final Paralympic qualification tournament in Halifax.

Vair is one of 128 athletes and 113 coaches representing Canada. The 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games will include 4,400 athletes from 160 nations competing in 22 sports with Canada competing in 18 of the 22 sports.

She is also among the 15 per cent of people in the world with a disability and on Friday night Lethbridge City Hall was lit up in purple in recognition of the global campaign #WeThe15. The campaign aims to end discrimination against people with disabilities and act as a global movement publicly campaigning for disability visibility, inclusion and accessibility.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Rick. “Three years ago you didn’t think this would be possible. She’s always been active in sports, playing with the Lethbridge Kodiaks soccer. After her accident we thought soccer was over. When the opportunity came to play volleyball for Canada came up she jumped at the chance and it’s pretty exciting. At the time, we still didn’t think the Olympics was in the future, but the future is here and it’s pretty cool to watch her play in Tokyo. We really wish we could have been there. It’s not very often you get your kids able to be in the Paralympics and be able to be there. So that’s frustrating not to able to be there, but we’re excited for her to be there and playing.”

Rick and Kris’ assessment of their daughter’s tenacity was of no surprise to Lethbridge College Kodiaks manager of athletics and recreation services, Todd Caughlin.

“One hundred per cent,” he said. “She came in as a freshman and a lot of freshmen don’t make an immediate impact. She did and you could see it and not just on the field, but in the classroom and her leadership off the field, too. She was at every one of our community events with a smile on her face. I knew I could call her and she would show up to run events. She came in going full force. There was no ‘Well, I’ll edge my way into this’ and that was the exact same way after she lost her leg. She was out at practices trying to kick the ball around. If that doesn’t say resilience and perseverance and just the love to live, then what does?”

Speaking at Friday’s ceremony was para cyclist Lowell Taylor, who is diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, requiring him to adjust to decreasing sight his entire life.

“Payden is among a very elite class of athletes who are representing their countries at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo,” said Taylor, a member of Cycling Canada’s NextGen team who had his best result at the 2020 track worlds when he was seventh in the individual pursuit with pilot Ed Veal, also setting the Canadian record in the kilo. “The Paralympic experience is about inclusion. It’s about inspiration and coming together to honour sport and each other and this sense of overcoming adversity, turning our setbacks in to setups and turning those obstacles into opportunities. Payden is able to do that and it’s inspiring all of us who feel like we’re broken, like our physical impairments and disabilities have set us apart. We can actually see that our brokenness is beautiful.”

Lethbridge Sport Council executive director Susan Eymann noted the excitement of Vair competing in Tokyo as well as the need to spread the word about programs in Lethbridge and area for everyone of all abilities and ages.

“The impact of sport is powerful, but it’s so much more for individuals with a disability.”

Both Eymann and Kris were up at 3:30 a.m. local time Friday to watch Canada drop a close five-set match to Brazil.

“It was a fantastic game,” said Eymann. “I had not watched the team play before, so I’m (not) sure by their standards if it was a good game, but I thought it was fantastic. When Payden was on the court when they got a point her face just lit up and it lit up the whole gymnasium. You can really tell what a fantastic experience she’s having.”

Kris said she and Rick went through every emotion watching their daughter in Friday’s game.

“When they won the first match we were so excited because Brazil is ranked higher than we are,” she said. “For them to win that first match was amazing. We kind of lost it in the second one, but they fought in the third (set) and did really well. In the fifth (set) we almost made it. It was a tough loss, but you know what? They played hearts (out) and that’s all that matters. We’re proud of them.”

Team Canada wraps up the preliminary round Wednesday against Japan at 5:30 a.m. local time.

The bronze medal match is Sept. 4 at 1:30 a.m. local time with the gold medal match taking place Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. locally.

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