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Coquitlam Skier Eyes Paralympics

Posted on 27/01/2010 12:00am

Coquitlam skier eyes Paralympics
Coquitlam NOW
Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010

As a key member of the 2010 Canadian Para-Alpine Ski team, Matthew Hallat, 2006 Paralympian and 2009 Canadian National Slalom champion, is working diligently in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games now only weeks away.

Hallat was born in Vancouver, British Columbia but grew up in Coquitlam, where he spent a lively childhood participating in many different sports.

"My dad played hockey in the WHL, so he was very involved as an athlete and always encouraged my two brothers and I to be active," says Hallat.

Hockey was especially important to Hallat when he was young, and to this day he still keeps a picture of himself meeting Wayne Gretzky.

On March 7, 1990, at the age of five -- on his mother's birthday -- Hallat was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Ewing's sarcoma.

Less than one month before his sixth birthday, he had his right leg amputated at the knee. After a year of chemotherapy and many ups and downs, he knew his life would never be the same again, but his love of sports only grew stronger.

Hallat doesn't really feel like his disability was a challenge as he grew up, it was just something he had to deal with.

"I had a prosthetic from such a young age that I learned to do everything with it; it was the only thing I knew and it was normal for me," explains Hallat. Today, he acknowledges that it certainly changed the way he grew up, but that it gave him more opportunities than it took away. "I wouldn't be the athlete I am today if it wasn't for my disability, and I view it as a positive rather than a negative," he says.

Growing up with his prosthetic, Hallat played soccer, baseball, hockey, golf and mountain biked -- but he found his calling the moment he stepped into his first ski.

"The exhilaration of racing down the mountain, dodging in and out of people was something that was unlike anything I'd ever experienced," he explains.

He believes that one of his coaches described it best: "When I get up in the morning, go to work, the grocery store and take on the normal day's tasks, I am disabled. But when I step into a ski, I am equal. I can ski with anybody."

When Hallat was 14, he made the national development team, which at the time allowed him to realize the magnitude of the opportunity he had been given and just what he could do with his talent.

"That's when I knew that skiing is what I would always want to do," he says. It was also around this time that the sport of Para-Alpine took off and the sport's governing body decided to hold a Para-Alpine World Cup circuit annually with even more stops than ever before.

When Hallat turned 18, he graduated from high school and joined the national team. Since then, Hallat has continued to improve every year, setting his sights higher and higher.

Today, he considers some of his major successes to include two seventh-place finishes in 2009, one in a World Cup downhill race in Whistler (that served as a test event for the 2010 Olympics) and one in a World Cup slalom race in La Molina, Spain.

He found these results extremely motivating for his 2010 training. Hallat also feels that making the 2006 Paralympic team was a tremendous accomplishment, as well as a great learning experience. He believes it is a huge honour to compete for Team Canada and represent the entire country at any event, and he is looking forward to doing so on his home turf at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games.

"I knew when I was young that I wanted to be an Olympic champion," Hallat explains. "When I was at decision day in GM place that early morning in July 2003, I realized I had the opportunity to accomplish my goal at home, something that had never crossed my mind and something that made the desire to be successful that much greater."

As Hallat gears himself up for 2010, he comments on the fact that he has always received a great deal of support from his family and that they have helped him get to where he is today.

They still drive him to and from the airport as he travels all across the world for training, and they continue to remain involved by attending or watching as many races as they can.

Hallat first became involved with athlete leadership when he joined the Esteem Team in 2006. A Motivate Canada program, the Esteem Team is made up of a group of high-performance athletes from across Canada that deliver a positive message of goal setting and living a healthy and active lifestyle through their personal stories. The athletes give presentations to youth throughout Canada, inspiring them to set their own objectives and to follow their dreams.

Hallat has also participated in the VANOC Paralympic School Days, which were created in an effort to raise awareness of the Paralympic Games and Canadian Paralympic athletes. Paralympic School Days bring fun and educational events to elementary schools in Vancouver, including an appearance from a Paralympic athlete, highlighted by a motivational speech and time for the Paralympian to answer questions from the students and teachers.

In his spare time, Hallat enjoys various public speaking engagements for those ranging from school children to adults, to events such as "the Faces of Whistler," a media event for more than 150 media and tourism executives from across the world and showcases the faces of Whistler for the 2010 Games.

He receives individual requests from local schools where he is happy to share his motivational story with the children. He is also part of the Canadian Paralympic Committee Heroes program -- a group of high-performance athletes who have overcome challenges and now inspire others to overcome barriers.

Hallat was first introduced to AthletesCAN by his sport's athlete rep when he joined the senior national team and heard about the various programs and services that are offered to athletes. Wanting to learn more, he then participated in his first KidsCAN School Day and AthletesCAN Forum in 2009 in Richmond.

"KidsCAN School Day was a lot of fun and it was amazing to see that many kids participating in so many events and activities in a spectacular environment such as the Richmond Olympic Oval where the Olympics will take place. It was outstanding for me and for them," says Hallat.

He believes the 2009 AthletesCAN Forum was a great leadership experience as he got to meet many different high performance athletes from across the country, learn about their successes and failures and incorporate the information into what he does to best represent his team.

Hallat has acted as the athlete representative for Para-Alpine since 2006. He enjoys representing his team and working to make the training and competition environment a positive one for the team to come together and compete at their absolute best.

Hallat is also passionate about giving back to B.C. Children's Hospital, as he went through the program himself.

"I went back and spoke to a teen group about overcoming challenges; this was the most rewarding experience for me because it really hit close to home," he explains.

Balancing his training requirements with his role as an athlete leader is something that took Hallat some time to figure out.

Hallat is also completing a business administration degree at Simon Fraser University, something he has put on hold for 2010 to represent his country at home in the biggest Games of his life, but will return to next year.

When he is on the road, he is limited in what he can do, but once he is back home, he makes sure to plan an appropriate amount of time for the leadership roles and activities he is passionate about. As December approaches, however, Hallat makes sure that he has enough recovery time to be ready for the grind of competition.

"You need to be aware what times of the year are most important for you to focus on training as your success in sport relies on this. Without a good balance both on and off the hill, success is difficult to come by and, in turn, less leadership opportunities present themselves -- they work hand in hand," he explains.

Hallat's four-year program to prepare for the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics is building up as the Games quickly approach, and he is training harder than ever.

His focus is now becoming more specific and his technique finalized as the race season started. Hallat believes that he is capable of a podium finish in 2010 and that it will take a great run to do so. "Everybody hopes for that and that is what we try to achieve," he says.

© Coquitlam Now 2010