After her first ever Paralympic medal win on March 13 in the Women’s 1.5km Sprint ski race, finishing a mere 0.1 seconds behind the silver medal spot to take the bronze, Natalie Wilkie of Salmon Arm had her sights set on the upcoming 7.5km race. Reported to be her strongest distance by fellow members of the Larch Hills Nordic Ski Club, Wilkie was undoubtedly expected to have a strong showing in the race.
However, not many foresaw what happened next as Wilkie came into the final stretch of the race with a clear lead on the competition. The 17-year-old skier, who lost most of the fingers in her left hand during an accident in 2016, crossed the finish line with a time of 22:12.2, securing her first gold medal in the Paralympics while fellow Canadian Emily Young trailed close behind for a bronze medal finish.
Wilkie collapsed in an exuberant, exhausted heap with a massive smile on her face almost immediately after crossing the finish line as the crowd in PyeongChang went wild in support of the talented young skier.
Over 8,000km away, Wilkie’s hometown shared in the excitement, hosting a live viewing party of the 7.5km race that displayed truly how proud the community is of their newly minted Paralympic gold medalist. The auditorium at the SASCU Recreation Centre was packed with excited friends, family and fans, many of them dressed in red and white and carrying signs emblazoned with the words ‘go Natalie go!’
Jennifer Henrie, who helped to organize and promote the viewing party, says “I’m so excited to see so much red and white here! I know there is a lot of support and it’s nice to see the people that have come out. It’s so exciting to see, I think it was so wonderful that she got the bronze in the sprint, 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.”
Marcia Beckner, who knows Wilkie through the Larch Hills ski club, remarked that it was inspiring to see people who otherwise had no affiliation with the skier come out simply to support and encourage her.
This is awesome, her whole family is here, grandparents, her dad’s coming and sisters and stuff, and the whole gang here,” Beckner says. “Some people that don’t have anything to do with cross country skiing just are here for Natalie.”
Beckner adds that seeing Wilkie and other Paralympians perform at such a high level of competition makes her extremely proud of how far she has come.
“When we look at all these handicapped skiers in the Paralympics, it just makes you so proud of them because I mean us able bodied ones, it’s all we can do to ski and they’re just amazing.”
Before leaving for PyeongChang, Wilkie expressed her feelings of humble gratitude to a community that has risen to support her overwhelmingly.
“I’ve been really surprised by how involved the community is in my journey and sending me off,” Wilkie said. “The community is really into this, it’s pretty exciting for me. Thanks for being so involved in helping me on my way, I don’t think I would be as excited to do this if I didn’t know I had everyone behind me cheering me on and watching me on TV, it makes a big difference.”