The new chief executive officer of the Canadian Paralympic Committee says the time was ripe to take the job.
Karen O'Neill was named CEO of the sport organization Wednesday. She currently holds the same position with Field Hockey Canada and will start working for the CPC on June 3.
The Montreal native replaces Henry Storgaard, who stepped down Jan. 18 after four years in the job.
With the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto and the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio De Janeiro coming in quick succession, O'Neill felt it was a golden opportunity to help Canadian athletes win medals.
"The timing felt really right," O'Neill said from Ottawa. "A lot of the basics are in place and I was just really excited to come in and help with some of the fine-tuning to really take it up that next level."
O'Neill was chief operating officer of the Rick Hansen Foundation from 2004 to 2009 and CEO of Commonwealth Games Canada for eight years before that. She was the Canadian Paralympic team's chef de mission in 1996.
With the momentum from the 2010 Winter Paralympics bringing in more sponsorship dollars, Storgaard put the CPC on solid financial footing.
When he resigned, the organization said it had moved from a $1-million deficit to an annual budget of $9.4 million with a reserve fund of $1.3 million, as well as a legacy fund of $25 million over five years.
"No question that both Games and development of the system takes some funds," O'Neill said. "You don't want that to be a distraction. I'd like to make sure we can continue that momentum."
Canada achieved its goal of a top-three finish among countries in gold medals won at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. The host team earned 10 gold and finished with 19 medals overall.
The objective for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia remains a top-three result in gold medals. The competition March 7-16 will include para-alpine and para-Nordic skiing, para-snowboard, sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
In summer sport, more countries are putting more money and resources into their Paralympic athletes. Even with increased funding from Own The Podium, Canada's Paralympians are finding medals much more difficult to win.
The Canadian team tumbled down the world rankings at the 2012 Paralympics in London. The stated objective was a top-eight finish in the gold-medal count.
Canada ranked 20th with seven gold medals, which was well below the 19 won in 2008.
"Unlike the Olympics, the number of countries increases by sometimes even double digit numbers from one Paralympics to the next," O'Neill said.
"I think in the short term I really want to be focused on ensuring we've got the best coaches, the best quality daily training environment, and that we work really closely with out sport partners to make sure we can remove some of the obstacles that would either hinder or hamper that kind of focus."
The CPC has embarked on a campaign to get more Canadians with disabilities into sport, citing the statistic of just four per cent participation compared to the 33 per cent of able-bodied Canadians involved in sports.
Recruitment and connecting people with disabilities with sport will continue to be priorities, O'Neill said.
"I would say the pathway is clearer now," she added. "I would say the quality and quantity of coaches now has increased substantially. I would really be hoping just to continue with that so our participation rates over the next years will in fact double."
O'Neill has a master's degree in education from McGill University and a bachelor of arts in psychology from Concordia University.
Canadians became more aware of their Paralympic athletes in 2010 and O'Neill wants to further increase their profile.
"I want to ensure Paralympic sport is not just an event and not just 10 days every year, every two years or every four years," she said. "I want to raise the profile of our sports, of our athletes, of our coaches in parasport 365 days a year so that the events capture our imagination and garner a bit more attention."
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