An enthusiastic reception greeted 17-year-old Paralympic champion Natalie Wilkie at the Kelowna International Airport on Monday.
Exhausted from the long flight from Korea, Wilkie didn’t let it show as she hugged more than a dozen friends and family who had made the trip from Salmon Arm to welcome her home — even her dog made an appearance.
As the youngest member of the Canadian Paralympic Team, Wilkie is bringing home three medals, a gold, silver and bronze, from the PyeongChang games.
“I went into the Games thinking it would be more of an experience and my big focus would be on Beijing 2022,” explained Wilkie. “So I just went out and skied my best and I won three medals which is awesome.”
The City of Salmon Arm will be celebrating Wilkie’s accomplishments with a parade through the downtown area on a city fire truck starting at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 23. Wilkie will travel through downtown to the city hall plaza, where she will be honoured by city officials. Everyone is welcome.
The Grade 11 student said she didn’t know her place during some of the races due to the interval starts, and instead focused on the fact she was skiing against some of the world’s top professional athletes.
“My first race was the 15-kilometre race and I hadn’t really done that one much, but the last three races are ones I have been doing all year,” she said.
Wilkie’s first medal of the Paralympics was a bronze in the 1.5-km sprint race, followed by her gold medal win in the 7.5-km race and a silver-medal finish the next day as part of the Canadian relay team.
For her gold medal in the 7.5- km standing race, Wilkie said she couldn’t believe her time when she saw the clock after the first lap and, when she crossed the finish line, she knew she had placed.
Wilkie’s mother Karin Huster is still in disbelief about her daughter’s achievements, saying she did not see this coming.
“It’s unbelievable, nobody expected that,” Huster explained. “She went to her first para-Olympics as a 17-year-old who was going to feel out what it was like and learn from the experience and here she gets a gold medal.”
The para-nordic skier is now being compared to Brian McKeever, Canada’s most-decorated Winter Paralympian, something Wilkie is a tad shy about.
“I mean, I guess they are comparing me because I have a long career ahead of me,” she laughed.
Indeed, she does have a long career and the gumption to carry it out. After losing her fingers in a wood-shop incident at school, Wilkie jumped back on her skis just two weeks later. Since then, she has continued competing in both traditional and para-skiing events, recently placing fourth in the mass-start 7-km race at the 2018 Teck B.C. Championships.
“It (skiing) really helped me get through my accident,” Wilkie explained. “It helped to normalize things after my accident and make everything seem OK.”
Another reason Wilkie believes she has been successful is that the support from Salmon Arm has been overwhelming.
“The whole community has just stepped up and supported me in my journey. I don’t think I would have had the same feeling going into the Games had they not been so supportive.”
In fact, many of her biggest fans in the community gathered to watch her claim the gold in the 7.5-km race at a live-viewing party in the SASCU Recreation Centre Auditorium. The party culminated in raucous applause and ear-splitting cheers from a crowd brimming with hometown pride, carrying signs emblazoned with the words ‘Go Natalie Go.’
Jennifer Henrie, who helped to organize the viewing party, says: “I think she completely surprised everybody. She’s such a down-to-earth kid and it’s amazing to see her take it all in stride.”
And, Wilkie’s mother agrees.
“Salmon Arm and Larch Hills are known for producing really good skiers, even at the local level,” said Huster.
Now, Wilkie will return to life in Salmon Arm but she has two weeks of spring break to ease back into the groove of high school.