The Paralympic Games movement has come a long way.
From its start as the International Wheelchair Games in 1948, an event staged primarily for the benefit of war veterans, to the transition to the formalized acceptance of the Paralympics heading and the decision to closely link the competition to the Summer and Winter Olympics beginning in 1988 in Seoul, the celebration of sport no longer flies well under the radar.
Local athletes such as Steve Daniel (rowing - 2008 - Beijing), Jeff Dickson (alpine ski - three time Paralympian) and Colin Cameron (nordic ski - two time paralympian) and others are now appropriately feted and recognized for their accomplishments as they prepare to represent the country on the biggest stage of all.
And while 59 year-old Sudbury native and long-time resident Gilles Lafrance certainly enjoyed his fair share of notoriety over the course of his career that spanned more than 30 years, the general awareness of the Paralympics was not nearly as heightened when he first donned the maple leaf singlet in track and field competition in Long Island (New York) in the summer of 1984.
One of five children in the family, Lafrance spent many of his young formative years in Montreal, a very fitting setting for the athlete who did not let cerebral palsy deter from his love of sport.
“Like most kids, I played street hockey, not a lot of team sports - but the one sport I loved to follow is baseball,” Lafrance noted recently. Although a life-long fan of the game, a reality that would later play a role in his decision to pursue high level para-athletics, the outgoing young man would hit the diamonds for only one summer on the west island of Montreal.
But what a summer it was.
“When I was 12 or 13, I went out for tryouts,” recalled Lafrance. “My dad told the league that I had some physical limitations, but that I could catch a ball and throw. I couldn’t be a pitcher, but I could hit a little bit.”
“We were playing a game one night in one of the other towns. I’m playing centerfield and a guy hits a ball to centre and I’m sure everyone was holding their breath. I caught the ball at the fence and was mobbed by my teammates.”
This relatively minor sporting highlight was but a small precursor of things to come.
With treks to a handful of Expos games with his father part of the mix each and every summer, Lafrance would not take his next meaningful step forward in sport until his later teens, just before the family moved to Mississauga. A high-school teacher in Montreal, noting that he had a couple of other students at the school who were also dealing with C.P., decided to start a Phys Ed class specifically for the grouping.
While the effort did not shed a whole lot of light on the future potential of the local paralympian, it was yet another progression in helping Lafrance (and others) garner an increasing comfort of their ability to compete in sport. By the time 1981 arrived and Lafrance was offered the opportunity to compete at the Regional Games in Peterborough, the needle had moved to the point where he was willing to give it a shot.
He was not yet completely sold on the endeavour, but certainly willing to give it a shot.
Even after sweeping to victory in the 60m/100m/200m races, a feat that he repeated at the provincial championships in Burlington, Lafrance remained a reluctant warrior.
Side-bar: for as much as he had developed an affinity for baseball, most notably as a fan of the game, Lafrance was also, in his own words, a “big radio geek”. He was that kid who would spend endless late night hours navigating the AM airways, looking to find either those DJs who were larger than life - or a broadcast of an Expos, Yankees or Tigers game, depending on his physical whereabouts at the time.
So when the manager of the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports team approached his parents about a national training camp being held in Windsor, one that might also involve taking in a Detroit Tigers game during the stay, suffice to say that Lafrance had found his motivator.
The rest, as they say, might not quite be history - but it was extremely impressive.
Named Ontario CP Rookie of the Year in 1981, Lafrance was selected for his first set of World Games in Denmark in 1982, capturing gold in the 200m and bronze in the 100m. Also immediately following his return from his overseas adventure, the rapidly rising star would move, with his family, to Sudbury, the place he has called home ever since.
His first Paralympic Games, even though the term had not yet garnered universal acceptance and recognition, was in 1984 in New York, where Lafrance would post highly respectable times in the 100m (12.50 seconds), 200m (25.70) and 400m (1:02 or 1:03) distances.
With the schedule somewhat back-assward that summer and provincials scheduled some six weeks after the Long Island competition, Lafrance would establish new PBs back in Ontario, posting times that would have claimed gold with the international field earlier that summer.
Time, it seemed, to track down a coach.
“I’m not even sure how we originally even got in contact, but I remember my mom telling me that there was a gentleman who was interested in training me - but he admitted he didn’t know anything about handicapped athletes,” said Lafrance.
That gentleman was none other than Dr Ron Wallingford, Laurentian University track and field coach at the time and one of the very best Canadian marathoners of his day. “We have to make you peak at just the right time; you peaked too late,” Lafrance noted of his conversation with his new mentor, looking back on 1984.
Thankfully, the World Championships in Belgium (1986) were now directly in sight. The training environment for Lafrance could not have been much better, from tackling workouts with the L.U. varsity athletes - “the students were great - I’ve never run with a group of people that were so supportive” - to the fact that Wallingford would register his slightly older protegee to many of the same events as his able-bodied athletes.
“When it came time to go to Belgium, he (Wallingford) knew that I was ready,” said Lafrance. “I would come for the trip with a list of what I needed to do three days before my race, two days before my race. This was a guy who knew what he was doing.”
The proof would be in the pudding.
Taking first place in the 200m with a new world record time of 25.50 (to the best of his memory), Lafrance would follow-up that performance with a second world mark, this one coming in Sweden in the 400m (57.3) roughly one month later.
While he would come close on many occasions, Lafrance would never better those times. Sure, he was competitive enough to maintain a spot on the team for the Barcelona Paralympics (1992), helping the Canadian 4 X 100m relay team to a bronze medal at Worlds in Berlin too years later.
Father Time was taking its toll.
Lafrance would be invited along for a team that would make its way to Sydney (Australia) in 1999, albeit largely because of his ability to be a positive influence on that next group of up and coming athletes.
With sprint distances becoming far less of an option, Lafrance veered off to focus on marathons (he would run three of them) and half marathons (perhaps six or so), with a healthy mix of 10kms and 5 kms sprinkled over the course of the ensuing two decades.
And while most of these races occur in relative anonymity, Lafrance is just fine with that.
He might not be a household name for many current fans of Sudbury sports, but back in the 1980s and 1990s, Gilles Lafrance most certainly was - deservedly so.