SALT LAKE CITY -- Storm clouds draped the snowy Wasatch Mountains as 450 physically challenged athletes from 36 countries officially opened the Paralympic Winter Games on Thursday night.
Erik Weihenmayer carried the Olympic flame through the stadium on the final leg of its Journey of Fire and handed the torch to American Paralympic skiers Muffy Davis and Chris Waddell, who lighted the same cauldron that burned through the Winter Olympics.
Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, was accompanied by his guide dog as he dashed to the cauldron up steep stairs, past an artistic set of jagged, abstract mountains.
The run perfectly portrayed the Paralympics theme -- mind, body, spirit -- and the ascent through the storm to the summit of achievement.
"Tonight we awaken the spirit and draw strength from the mountains," said Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. said at the start of the ceremony.
Juneau monoskier Joe Tompkins is believed to be the first Alaskan to compete in the Paralympics. He will compete in the downhill on Saturday and the Super G on Sunday.
The Salt Lake Paralympics are the eighth such winter games, the first Winter Paralympics ever in North America and the first Winter Paralympics ever set up by an Olympic organizing committee.
Many of the Paralympic expenses were covered by dual planning with the Olympics, but organizers will spend about $60 million just on the Paralympics, including $5 million on the opening and closing ceremonies.
Early worries about Thursday night's weather proved out. By the time the concert started, the temperature had dropped into the 30s with gusty wind and rain.
Still, a near-sellout crowd filled the 44,600-capacity stadium, covering themselves with souvenir rain ponchos as they danced to country-rock singer Wynonna and rock-soul-jazz stylist Stevie Wonder.
International Paralympic Committee president Philip Craven welcomed the athletes and spectators. "Let's do it again," he said. "I know how you cannot wait to get started."
"You dream, compete and conquer," said Salt Lake Organizing Committee president Mitt Romney.
President Bush saluted the Paralympians in a videotaped speech.
"Every athlete at these games will demonstrate that we are limited only by the size of our own dreams," he said, "and that desire and courage can overcome any obstacle life may bring you."
Other performers included violinist Vannessa-Mae, 13-year-old country singer Billy Gilman and Utah native Donny Osmond, who sang "you are the body, you are the spirit, open your mind, let yourself hear it."
The games run through March 16.
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