After years in basketball, volleyball, Stewart switched to shot put -- and is golden

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When Greg Stewart stepped into the circle for his first throw on Wednesday and pulled the shot put tight into the broad neck of his 7-2 frame, he thought of the words of his coach Dylan Armstrong.

"Dylan always says, make sure you throw your furthest, your hardest on the very first one, and let the other people have to deal with it," Stewart said.

Stewart executed the Olympic bronze medallist's instructions perfectly. On his opening throw, the 35-year-old from Kamloops, B.C., unleashed a Paralympic record of 16.75 metres -- and then let out a huge roar to match -- to win shot put gold at the Tokyo Paralympics.

On Canada's best day at the Paralympics, swimmer Aurelie Rivard captured her second gold medal in spectacular fashion, smashing her own world record in the 400-metre freestyle by about five seconds, and wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos captured his third silver medal, in the men's 100.

Canada has 16 medals through eight days of the Games.

While Stewart is making his Paralympic debut in Tokyo, he's been an athlete most of his life. Despite being born with no left arm below the elbow, he played varsity basketball for Thomson Rivers University and earned U Sport defensive player of the year in 2011.

On the Para side, he won three world titles with the men's standing volleyball team, and earned two Parapan American Games bronze medals on the sitting volleyball team.

But the promise of excelling at an individual sport tugged at him. His size dictated that a throwing event was likely his ticket to the top of the podium. He's strong at 350 pounds, is the world's tallest shot putter according to Armstrong, and has long levers to match. And he's agile for a big guy, thanks to his years playing basketball and volleyball.

"I'm a huge team guy. I love the camaraderie, I love the chemistry, kind of all working towards the same common goal," he said. "However, I think deep down inside, I knew that if I wanted to achieve what I felt was greatness, or if I wanted to get to that next level, I felt like I'd do it on my own."

He took up shot put in 2018, and connected with Armstrong, Canada's Olympic shot put bronze medallist in 2008.

"He's an amazing coach . . . and it's unique with us, because I'm 35 and he's 40, so we're similar in age and have an understanding of what commitment and perhaps hard work and whatnot looks like and so he didn't have to treat me like I was a little kid. There was still chemistry that we were able to work together on and ultimately build a winning team."

While Armstrong couldn't be in Tokyo -- COVID-19 protocols meant slashing the numbers of travelling staff -- his words played like a recording in Stewart's mind at National Stadium.

"That's all we talked about was just trusting the process, go out there and have fun, and allow it to happen," Stewart said. "The moment I start looking around and thinking I want to throw further, I wasn't good enough or that guy threw better, that's when it removes me from what's actually going on.

"And, it was just being in the moment. How often do we find ourselves not in the moment in this crazy life that we live? Being able to just keep (the shot put) tight, throw, let the rest takes care of itself."

Excelling on the world stage in his third sport, Stewart said he had a message about the tight Paralympic community and celebrating differences.

"People with a disability, all they want to do is fit in. Now don't get me wrong, I think everybody wants to fit in. Everyone wants to be loved. And everyone wants to be a part of something," he said. "But you, me and everyone are different. We appear different, act different, feel different, whatever. But because we're all different, that is a similarity that we all share. And so, because we share that we're actually not alone."

Rivard, meanwhile, raced to her second victory in Tokyo. She has climbed the podium four times in Japan for nine career Paralympic medals.

The 25-year-old from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., touched the wall in four minutes 24.08 seconds, more than five seconds under her own previous mark of 4:29.27 she set in 2018.

Rivard has dominated the 400 free for years. A single loss two years ago motivated her.

"I hated the feeling . . . I hated the feeling of losing an event I have been winning for so long," Rivard said. "I made a promise to myself that it would never happen again. For the past two years, 95 per cent of my work has gone into that race."

Rivard still has two races left in Tokyo, the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley. Lakatos, meanwhile, was the defending Paralympic champion in the 100, but has been training more for distance events this season, and so wasn't entirely surprised by his loss to Pongsakorn Paeyo of Thailand, who pulled away over the the final 50 metres.

"My time was fine. It is what I would expect right now," Lakatos said. "The world has gotten a lot faster and that time doesn't win gold anymore."

After going without a medal in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics, Lakatos almost retired, but after taking 2009 to ponder his future, he decided to stick with it. The 41-year-old from Dorval, Que., has 10 Paralympic medals, and still has two events to go in Tokyo, the 800 metres and marathon.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, Charlotte Bolton, an 18-year-old from Tillsonburg, Ont., was sixth in the women's discus.

In the pool, Alec Elliot of Kitchener, Ont., was fifth in his 400 freestyle while Morgan Bird of Calgary was sixth in the women's 50 freestyle.

Canada's sitting volleyball team guaranteed its best-ever Paralympic finish after a 3-0 win over Japan. They finished preliminary action 2-1, clinching a spot in the semifinals where they face China.

"Getting to the semifinals of the Paralympics started as a dream back in Rio 2016 after our seventh-place finish," said team captain Danielle Ellis of White Rock, B.C. "And after five years of hard work and dedication, from every member of this team, we made it.

"I believe in each woman here and I know how much they have put into competing at the Paralympics and I am so proud to sit next to them on the court."

Canada's men's wheelchair basketball team saw its dream of a medal disappear with a 66-52 loss to Britain in the quarterfinals.

Five-time Paralympian Patrick Anderson of Fergus, Ont., had 22 points and 17 rebounds for the Canadians, who clutched a 10-point lead in the third quarter, but were outscored 24-9 in the game's final 10 minutes.

"It is not easy to close out a game against Great Britain. We had it. But I'm proud of the guys, proud of the improvements, proud of how we have been playing," coach Matteo Feriani said. "I'm proud because we fought. We fought until the end. We were there. We made it very hard for them."

Canada plays Germany in a seventh-place classification game on Friday.

In cycling, Joey Desjardins of Hawkesbury, Ont., was eighth in the men's road race. Charles Moreau of Victoriaville, Que., bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Games, was 10th while Alex Hyndman of Morpeth, Ont., finished 11th.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect event for Rivard.

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