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Lessons that come with losing an arm helped mold Arendz's Paralympic career

PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — Mark Arendz was a stubborn child.
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PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — Mark Arendz was a stubborn child.

So when a grain auger took his left arm at seven years old, the Paralympic biathlete and cross-country skier insisted on teaching himself all the life skills that came with being one-handed.

While his friends were learning to swim and ride bikes, he was mastering the art of buttoning his shirt, cutting his food, and eating cereal without the bowl sliding across the table like a curling stone.

The 28-year-old from Hartsville, P.E.I., raced to his second medal of the Pyeongchang Paralympics on Tuesday, a bronze in biathlon's 12.5 kilometre event, and moments after he'd picked himself up off the snow and caught his breath, he talked about how all those milestones as a kid made him the athlete and man he is today.

"Absolutely," Arendz said. "Through all that, there's always been challenges, so challenges within sport are kind of second nature now. I just find a way around it, or plow straight through, and eventually you'll get through."

Arendz lost his arm on his family's farm on Aug. 19, 1997. They were transferring grain to a truck via an auger — a long metal tube with a spiral blade that moves the grain like an elevator. He noticed some grain wasn't loading and thought he'd help it along, and in reaching out his hand lost his balance. The augur pulled him in up to his shoulder.

The trucker had to reverse the auger to free Arendz, who remembers both the accident and his dad's frantic drive to the hospital. His last memory was seeing the "Emergency" sign over the doorway.

He learned to tie his shoes, he said, after spying a small girl in a pink dress do it at a War Amps seminar. He learned to cut his food by propping the fork between his shoulder and stump.

"Independence was always something I wanted to have. I didn't want to let this new disability kind of stand in my way. I looked at it as different abilities," he said.

Sport, Arendz said, became his therapy. The biathlon shooting range is his meditation.

"When it's on (target), it's kind of a very natural meditative state for me. So, it's a pleasure to get into that kind of mindset," he said.

The paradox of biathlon is its unique combination of pushing all out on the ski portion, then having to slow the heart rate to be perfectly precise on the shooting range.

"I come through the tunnel, lift up my glasses, and essentially I just tell myself 'I'm a shooter now,'" Arendz said, on his ability to instantly switch gears. "I have this imaginary line across the snow . . . I forget about how the skiing is, forget how my body's feeling, and I just focus on what I need to focus on in the range. So, checking the wind, what lane I'm going to, things like that. That's what I'm aware of. And as I'm laying down, it's all about taking those first couple of breaths, and then it's all natural."

Tuesday's race came down to the thrilling last round of shooting. Just three-tenths of a second separated the Canadian and Ukraine's Ihor Reptyukh, prompting the excited arena announcer to yell "Oy! Oy! Oy! Oy! Oy!"

But Arendz missed one of his five last shots, and had to ski a 150-metre penalty lap, which bumped him down to bronze. Reptyukh was a perfect five-for-five.

"As I was going into that last shooting . .  I wanted that win, that's what I came here, for that gold medal, went on the range, tried to go for it, unfortunately added that miss, that made it into a much tighter race, and the guys had just enough gas to ski through me on that last lap," Arendz said.

He took a risk in rushing through the shooting in hopes of gaining a few seconds on the field, rather than pausing a few moments to catch his breath.

"I'm happy I took that chance. I put myself in that position (to win), and that's all I can ask for," he said. "That one mistake, it hurts a little bit right now, but I'll get over it and move onto the next race."

Benjamin Daviet of France won the race for his second gold of the Games, while Reptyukh was second.

Arendz, who captured silver in the 7.5-kilometre race on Saturday, is one of Canada's Ironman at these Games. Between biathlon and cross-country, he will have competed in six events before the Paralympics close on Sunday night.

The three-time Paralympian, who won silver and bronze four years ago in Sochi, aims to become dominant across all events, like the Paralympics' Roger Federer.

"My strength comes in biathlon, but especially my classic on the cross-country side has really been coming up, and the confidence is there in the last few years," he said. (In classic skiing the skis remain parallel, as opposed to skating events where skiers push their skies against the snow at angles, much like skating.) 

Arendz credits Canadian cross-country skier Brian McKeever, who had 11 Paralympic gold medals going into Wednesday's race, with blazing a triumphant trail for him to follow.

"I'm always learning everything I can from Brian, he has a wealth of experience throughout the years, throughout his experiences at Games and world championships," Arendz said. "If I can learn at least half of that, to take that away, I'll be really happy."

 

 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press




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