Vernon Paralympics medalists Sonja Gaudet (left) and Josh Dueck (right) let Mission Hill Elementary students Devon Stoddard (from left), Joban Panag, Chloe Towpich, Tajveer Mann, Jasmin Zelaya and Harley Taylor wear their medals. The school inducted the Paralympic champions into its Hall of Fame Monday. Visit vernonmorningstar.com for video coverage of the event. (Roger Knox/Morning Star)

School enshrines Paralympics pair

Vernon's Mission Hill Elementary inducts Sonja Gaudet and Josh Dueck into its Hall of Fame

Canadian Paralympic athletes Sonja Gaudet and Josh Dueck are forever intertwined.

They are Paralympic medalists: Gaudet a three-time gold medalist in wheelchair curling, Dueck a gold- and silver-medal winning sit skier.

They were flagbearers for Canada at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia: Gaudet for the opening ceremonies, Dueck for the closing.

They live in the same town, Vernon.

And now, the friends are members of the Mission Hill Elementary School Hall of Fame, which recognizes people who show the importance of fairness, inclusion, cooperation and respect. People who make a difference in the community and around the world.

The pair were inducted by student presenters Tajveer Mann, Jasmin Zelaya, Harley Taylor, Joban Panag, Devon Stoddard and Chloe Towpich, who is currently writing/illustrating a picture book about Dueck, at a special ceremony Monday morning in front of Mission Hill’s student body and staff.

The presentation included video highlights of Gaudet’s and Dueck’s careers.

“This is really overwhelming for me,” said Gaudet, fighting back tears as the video clipper showed her talking about the support she received from her husband, Dan, and her two children. “Thank you very much for having me here today.”

It’s been 20 years since Gaudet’s spinal cord was severed on June 1, 1997 when her horse J.J. reared up and fell over backwards, pinning Gaudet. She was working at a restaurant at the time and was in the process of starting a home-based hairdressing business at the time of the accident. Her kids were aged six and three.

She told the audience how, as a student herself in Grade 9, Rick Hansen came to speak at a volleyball camp she was attending. Hansen was one of the first people Gaudet reached out to following her accident.

“He always said to me, ‘you will be able to do whatever you need to do, but you’ll have to be OK with doing it differently,'” said Gaudet, a former basketball, volleyball and softball player before her accident who pursued her love of sports after being confined to a wheelchair.

The World and Paralympic champion wheelchair curler has also been enshrined in the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame, as has Dueck, who had dreams of being a professional freestyle skier growing up in Kimberley. He moved to Whistler in 1998, then turned to coaching.

On March 8, 2004, while getting ready for the Canadian freestyle skiing championships at Silver Star, Dueck was doing a safety jump at the event site when things went horribly wrong. He landed on his face, breaking his neck, suffering a severe concussion and dislocating his back which severed his spinal cord.

A local doctor gave Dueck the news in hospital that he wouldn’t walk again, but also told him, “You know what Josh, before you know it you’re going to be back on the mountain trying to sit-ski with your friends.”

“In my darkest hours, he gave me a little bit of hope,” said Dueck, who added that one of the first persons to reach out to him following his accident was a complete stranger: Gaudet.

“I didn’t know Sonja when I had my accident and I want to say she leaped up but that’s a bit of a stretch,” joked Dueck. “She didn’t jump out of her chair either. But she quickly came to my side to give me some advice and wisdom on moving forward.”

Not only has Dueck won three Paralympic medals since the accident, he became the first person on a sit-ski to successfully land a back flip in 2012.

The nature lover is also the president of the Live It! Love It! Foundation, which promotes the progression of adaptive adventures and provides outdoor recreation opportunities for the disabled, married and a father. Dueck is also the subject of a documentary called The Freedom Chair.

Students at Mission Hill hosted a bake sale for the Hall of Fame ceremony, raising $266.50. The presenters gave cheques to both Gaudet (Spinal Cord Injury B.C.) and Dueck (Live It! Love It! Foundation).

The inductees later went to teacher Chad Soon’s class and answered questions from curious students.

Past Mission Hill Hall of Fame inductees include hockey player Larry Kwong and Vernon mural artist Michelle Loughery, the last inductee in 2013, who was in attendance Monday.

Loughery painted the mural that adorns the outside of Mission Hill School.

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