By Charlie Pinkerton
When Brianna Hennessy speaks, there’s something about her that stands out pretty quickly: she’s got a beaming personality.
Her radiance isn’t something that can be described in the short length of this story, but it’s a trait that shone brightly when she responded to this question: “How do you keep this kind of attitude given that… obviously your life has been changed in such a gigantic way?”
What happened to Hennessy — who this week will be competing at a Paralympic qualifier for canoeing and kayaking in Szeged, Hungary — was her accident, which took place more than six years ago.
On Nov. 11, 2014, while at a work conference in Toronto, a cab driver struck Hennessy while she was crossing the street. Her head smashed into the car’s windshield and she was knocked unconscious, broke the highest vertebra in her neck, and severed one of the main arteries to her brain.
She was left tetraplegic and has lived with chronic pain ever since.
“I had to choose to survive when I was in the hospital,” Hennessy, now 36, said in response to the question.
“When something bad happens, you only have three choices: you can let it define you, you can let it destroy you, or you can find a way to let it strengthen you,” she said.
“And for me, the third was my only option,” Hennessy added. “The resiliency – I’ve learned through sports.”
Hennessy was raised in Leitrim (just south of the Ottawa airport), and went to university at uOttawa. The daughter of two high-level athletes, she was born into a life with sport.
“I grew up on the side of a football field in my little jolly jumper,” she recalls, proudly.
Hennessy would go on, herself, to have an accomplished history in sport before her accident. Growing up, she played AA hockey, provincial-level rugby and was an amateur boxing champ in Ontario.
“(Having) been a dual-provincial-sport athlete — with everything that’s happened — I can tell just sort of fills (my parents’) hearts with joy, so (sport) means a lot to me,” Hennessy said.
Her parents believe it’s because of her background in sports and her ability to react quickly that she wasn’t killed by the 2014 accident, she said. After being hurt, she spent months in the hospital.
“Everything in my life kind of changed that day.”
It was close to two years after her injuries that she got into parasport.
Through the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, she was introduced to wheelchair rugby. Playing against mostly men, Hennessy would go on to crack Ontario’s provincial team before becoming the lone Canadian woman to compete last season in the elite level U.S. Quad Rugby Association.
“I was pretty proud of that and everything seemed to be going very well and then COVID hit,” she said.
A few months into the pandemic, Hennessy said her local wheelchair rugby coach Patrice Dagenais (the Team Canada co-captain Paralympic medalist who’s getting bashed by Hennessy in the photo above) reached out to her with a new competitive opportunity – and one she could pursue during COVID – para-kayaking.
“I’d never done a water sport in my life,” Hennessy recalled with a laugh. “So, I was completely out of my element, but I’m also the type of person that’s always looking for new challenges and ways to regain my purpose in life, since my accident… sports to me is the closest (thing) to home and is my sense of freedom and independence.”
Before first taking to the water, Hennessy was unsure she’d be able to swim, let alone kayak.
As she described it, Hennessy “showed up on (the) doorstep” of longtime Ottawa River Canoe Club (ORCC) head coach Joel Hazzan one day, and they took off from there.
She started paddling last August and after a short winter break got back on the water to train for the last half-year. Following two three-week-long training camps in Victoria and Vancouver near the beginning of this year, she took on the unusual experience of competing in her first race ever at the Canadian Paralympic trials.
“It was a lot of pressure on me,” Hennessy said. “I didn’t know (a lot) – from the start line, to lining up my boat, to how quickly they would say, ‘Ready, set, go!’
“I wasn’t even in the correct boat. I was in a boat that was at least 10 pounds heavier than I was supposed to be in.”
Hennessy placed second at the Canadian Paraympic trials, which wasn’t good enough land a berth for Tokyo 2021. She’s still vying for a spot at the Games in Hungary, but it’s trickier for her than her fellow Ottawa athletes, fellow ORCC paddler Mike Trauner and Gabe Ferron-Bouius, from the Rideau Canoe Club, who will be there.
She would have to qualify in a canoe discipline in Hungary, which she hasn’t specialized in to the degree she has kayaking. Longer-term, she says she’s focused on making the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
“Those are my two major goals,” Hennessy said.
The International Canoe Federation Paracanoe World Cup takes place May 13-15.
Ferron-Bouius, who some in Ottawa may be familiar with as a former AA hockey goalie with the Cumberland Grads, will also be competing in Hungary for a Paralympic spot.
Trauner, 41, needs a top-4 finish in Hungary to punch his ticket to the Tokyo Games. He’s a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who lost both of his legs in an explosion while serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
A version of this story was first published in the Saturday Sports Pages, our biweekly newsletter. Subscribing to it is a great way to stay connected with the latest news about Ottawa’s sports community. Visit this link to sign up for the newsletter.