TORONTO — Stephanie Dixon remembers returning home from the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, and being unable to celebrate her successes with anyone.
Nobody knew what Paralympic sport was.
"Here, after having these Parapan American Games in Toronto, I know that none of our athletes will ever have to put their heads down coming home from competition," said Dixon, a former Paralympic swimmer and the assistant chef de mission of Canada's team in Toronto. "They'll be able to raise their heads up high and be proud of their accomplishments. All of our athletes are being put in a position of being a role model and a hero in our country.
"And that just makes me so proud."
Canada set a target of finishing top-three in medals at the Parapan American Games, that wrapped up Saturday. Mission accomplished. The team went one better, finishing second with 168 medals — 50 gold, 63 silver and 55 bronze. Brazil finished atop the table with 257 medals (109-74-74), while the United States was third with 135 medals.
But the victory of these Games wasn't just about medals won, but about the fans won over along the way. The victory was in the jam-packed crowd that watched Canada's wheelchair rugby team beat the U.S. for gold, and a similarly large and noisy crowd that cheered on Canada's wheelchair basketball teams, which both came away with silver.
"Who's to say that a young child living with an impairment hasn't been inspired by what they've seen on TV and decided to take up para-sports?" said Craig Spence, communications director for the International Paralympic Committee. "You'll see next year in Rio a whole host of young British athletes who were inspired by the 2012 London Paralympic Games, and I think you'll see a similar situation here, Canadians who've been inspired by the performances of Aurelie Rivard will be wanting to compete.
"These Games will leave many legacies, but you don't judge them by the end of play tonight, but over the next 10 or 15 years."
These were the largest Parapan Am Games in history, with 1,600 athletes competing.
Canada fielded its largest-ever team of 216 athletes, and the results showed. Among the highlights: Rivard, a 19-year-old from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., won six gold medals in swimming, and set a world record.
There was also triple gold for Brent Lakatos and Alexandre Dupont on the track, and Daniel Chalifour and his guide Alexandre Cloutier in para-cycling.
Canada's strong showing also included medals in table tennis, judo, sitting volleyball, goalball, wheelchair tennis, para-archery, and boccia.
Rugby, both the men's and women's basketball teams, both the men's and women's goalball teams, and the women's sitting volleyball squad secured their tickets to the Rio Paralympics.
"It was a great opportunity to rehearse every aspect of a major international Games, from being on a team with other sports, to living in an athlete village and travelling to completion venues," said Walker-Young. "This has prepared our athletes to be their best in Rio at the 2016 Paralympic Games."
Canada's men's basketball team capped the competition, losing 62-39 to the United States. The crowd at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre rivalled the crowd that watched Canada's women win gold a few weeks earlier at the Pan American Games, and was on its feet cheering when Nikola Goncin drained a three-pointer in the dying seconds.
"When everyone's cheering you when you're down 30 points. . . this is spectacular," Goncin said.
Zak Madell, who scored 34 goals in Canada's 57-54 rugby win over the U.S., was chosen to carry Canada's flag in the closing ceremonies Saturday night at Nathan Phillips Square.
The 21-year-old from Okotoks, Alta., lingered long on the floor after Friday night's thrilling victory, signing autographs and posing for pictures. The exposure para-sports have gotten in Toronto, he said, have been "the beauty of these Games."
"We're getting the word out, not just to the friends and family who come and support us at all local tournaments, but locals in Toronto who heard about the sport, or saw it on TV and wanted to come see for themselves. I think that exposure is what we've been lacking in the past to get new players to come out and give it a shot."
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Also on HuffPost