"Enlightenment" was the theme, physicist Stephen Hawking the guide and Olympic Stadium the venue Wednesday night as London welcomed 4,200 athletes from more than 160 nations to the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Who better to greet Paralympians than a scientist who has shown the world that physical disabilities do not limit human potential?
"The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world. We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit," said Hawking, who was given two years to live in 1963 after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
"What is important is that we have the ability to create ... however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at," he added.
The extravaganza, directed by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, was billed as a voyage across "a sea of ideas" - including Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, the force that all Earth-bound athletes strive against. The show included 73 deaf and disabled professional performers and 68 disabled people among its 3,250 volunteers.
The gala opened with a look at the Big Bang - considered the beginning of the universe - as a glowing sphere turned the stadium into a giant nebula.
In a nod to the famously erratic British weather, umbrellas were a central theme. Seeing performers with no legs beneath the knee doing aerial flips carrying umbrellas could inspire the most ardent couch potato.
Sebastian Coe, chief of the London organizing committee, issued a big welcome home "to a movement that shows what sport is all about."
"Sport is about what you can do, what you can achieve, the limits you can reach, the barriers you can break. Sport shows what is possible. Sport refuses to take no for an answer," Coe told the audience of 60,000.
The London event is on track to be the most-watched Paralympics ever, with 2.5 million tickets expected to be sold by the time it ends Sept. 9.
As the athletes paraded in under a full moon, a huge roar filled the stadium for South African flagbearer Oscar Pistorius, the sprinter who is making history by running in both the Olympics and the Paralympics this year. Glittery ticker tape and a standing ovation then greeted the enormous British team as they entered to the David Bowie song "Heroes."
The parade took nearly an hour longer than expected, with athletes arriving in dozens of ways. Some came in motorized carts, others wheeled themselves in, still others were pushed by coaches or volunteers. They walked in with canes or crutches, eye patches and sunglasses, prosthetic limbs and walking sticks, determined to make it around the imposing stadium, welcomed by a global music mash-up by local DJs.
Led by flag bearer Garett Hickling, some 85 Canadian athletes marched in after Cameroon and ahead of Cape Verde.
Hicking, a 41-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., will represent Canada in wheelchair rugby at a fifth Paralympic Games. Canada has 145 athletes seeking medals in 15 of the 20 Paralympic sports.
The moment he touched the wall, Benoit Huot released the emotions that had built over the last four years.
When competitors started eclipsing him in Paralympic swimming in 2008, Huot refused to concede his race was run. The Montreal athlete re-dedicated himself to his sport.
Huot won Canada's first medal of the 2012 Paralympic Games with an exclamation mark. The 28-year-old captured gold in the 200 individual medley and broke his own world record Thursday.
Huot leaned back in the water and looked up with a face etched in joy and relief following his race. During his post-race interviews, when Princes Astrid of Belgium hung the medal around his neck and while O Canada played, Huot would erupt in tears.
It was Huot's ninth career gold medal, but first since 2004 when he dominated the Paralympics in Athens with five victories. Expecting another run of gold in 2008, Huot did not step on the top of the podium in Beijing. Instead, he returned to Canada with four bronze.
Huot had set a world record in the 200 I.M. at trials in March in Montreal. He lowered it by a quarter of a second Thursday to two minutes 10.01 seconds.
Huot beat his chief rivals Andre Brasil of Brazil and Rick Pendleton of Australia by more than a body length. Brasil took the pace out hard in butterfly, but Huot reeled the Brazilian in and passed him on the breaststroke leg.
"I went to Beijing the world champion, world-record holder expecting to win that gold medal and I came third," Huot said. "It was a difficult circumstance. It was really hard, but what happened in Beijing gave me that motivation and energy to come back for another four years.
"Yes, it's great to have a medal tonight, but what I'm the most proud of is those four years and the process to get to where I am today. I became a better person and a better athlete because of what happened in Beijing."
Summer Mortimer of Ancaster, Ont., earned silver in the women's 200 I.M., so Canada finished the first day of competition with two medals.
The Canadian team's objective is top eight in the gold-medal count. The country was seventh in Beijing with 19 gold.
Both Huot and Mortimer race in the S10 classification which is defined as minimal physical impairment. Huot, who was born with club feet, was one of the faces of the Canadian Paralympic team prior to London with 16 career Paralympic medals.
The 17th felt sweetly satisfying for the University of Quebec communications student because of everything he'd put into winning it.
"It was a long road back and there's a lot of athletes who could have walked away after Beijing and been done with it," swim team coach Craig McCord said. "From where he was four years ago, this is a huge crawl back and he threw down on some guys who have thrown down (on him).
"The first event of the meet, he was sending a message to the other guys out there that 'guys I'm here to play hard."'
Huot, a four-time Paralympian, will compete in the 100 backstroke, 400 freestyle and 100 freestyle next week. Mortimer raced her first Paralympic final and finished second to New Zealand's Sophie Pascal, who had set a world record in the morning heats.
Mortimer, 19, also has clubbed feet because of injuries and subsequent surgeries from a trampoline accident in 2008. She bounced off the trampoline and landed on a cement pad.
Kelowna's Garett Hickling talks about being selected as Canada's flag-bearer for the Paralympic Games.
The Canadian Press reports that a Kelowna athlete will carry Canada’s flag at the Paralympic opening ceremonies in London on Wednesday.
Wheelchair rugby player Garett Hickling, 41, is a five-time Paralympian and three-time Paralympic medallist.
Hickling has competed in every Paralympics that wheelchair rugby has been included in since 1996. He won silver at the 2004 Games in Athens and bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Hickling was named the MVP at the first three world championships held in the sport and the report says he is considered the leader of Canada's wheelchair rugby squad.
Canada's wheelchair rugby team will open its tournament on Sept. 5 against Australia.
In all, there are a total of 145 Canadian athletes competing in 15 sports at the London Paralympic Games.
Canada's Olympians were greeted by cheering fans and throngs of media as they touched down on home soil Monday.
A large crowd of young and old alike serenaded soccer star Christine Sinclair as she arrived in Vancouver a day after carrying Canada's flag in the London Games closing ceremony.
"We wanted, heading into this tournament, (to) leave the sport in a better place than when we'd gone into it," she said. "I could never have imagined this (strong show of support) would have come."
Across the country, Sinclair's teammate Diana Matheson, who scored the dramatic winning goal in Canada's bronze-medal victory over France, also received a hero's welcome when she arrived at Toronto's Pearson Airport.
"I think right now we're going home to sleep for a week," said Matheson.
Canada's only gold medallist was also greeted by adoring fans in Toronto.
Trampolinist Rosie MacLennan, proudly wearing her medal around her neck, said her Olympic success has brought a lot of attention to her sport.
"Now everybody knows my name," said the 23-year-old MacLennan, whose saw her Twitter followers explode from 900 to more than 14,000 after the big win.
It was clear in Vancouver that everybody knows Sinclair's name too.
"We love you, Christine!" shouted one young female fan.
"She's our captain! She's our captain!" others chanted.
The women's soccer bronze was one of the biggest Canadian stories of the London Games after the team lost to the United States in a semifinal marred by controversial officiating.
Sinclair said the bronze medal reaffirms her desire to go for gold again at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"I'm not retiring," said Sinclair. "I don't think any of us are retiring."
In the months leading up to the Games, the 29-year-old, Burnaby, B.C., native said she would keep playing until at least the 2015 Women's World Cup, which Canada is hosting, and likely stay on for another year for the Rio Games.
But there was no doubt about her future Monday as she spoke to reporters, signed autographs and posed for pictures for hundreds of fans.
Sinclair helped Canada claim its first ever Olympic medal in soccer as she led all scorers at the Games with six goals. It was also Canada's first medal in a traditional team sport at a Summer Games since 1936.
Sinclair's teammate Sophie Schmidt said the adulation shown Canada's captain was well deserved.
"She's meant so much to this team, and been the heart and soul of the team for so long," said Schmidt. "Now, finally, she has that medal. That kind of gives her that hero status. It's fantastic."
Soccer players Karina LeBlanc and Emily Zurrer also arrived in Vancouver on Monday as did silver-medal winning rower Krista Guloien and weightlifter Christine Girard, who won a bronze medal in London.
The strong show of support had some athletes fighting back tears.
"You can't ask for anything more, to come out and have young girls chant your name and be supportive," said Schmidt. "It's fantastic."
"We wanted to do something special for this country," added LeBlanc.
While Sinclair was sure about her future, others were pondering theirs.
"I'm looking forward," said star kayaker Adam van Koeverden who won silver in London. "I don't know that I'm done."
If van Koeverden does decide to retire, he will go out on a high note. The 30-year-old Burlington, Ont., native ranks as Canada's all-time top paddler with four Olympic medals.
But the camaraderie with other kayakers is what he cherishes most.
"It's cool, but it's not the reason I do this," he said in Toronto. "It's not why I get up early in the morning and get on the water."
Read more 2012 Olympic Games articles
» London Blog
- Decoding the closing ceremony Aug 12
- The 'miracle tape' of the 2012 games Aug 12
- Christine Sinclair named flag-bearer Aug 12
- What has 32 golds and the Spice Girls? Aug 11
- Eyes On London Aug 11
- Olympic finish line in sight Aug 10
- Weinberger swims to marathon bronze Aug 10
- Bolt strikes again, and again Aug 9
- Verbeek earns 5th silver for Canada Aug 9
- Canada over France for soccer bronze Aug 9
- Huynh wrestles away bronze medal Aug 8
- Canada paddles to silver, bronze Aug 8
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