By Charlie Pinkerton
Ottawa River Canoe Club athletes had opposite fortunes at this past week’s Paralympic qualifier for para-kayak and paracanoeing.
Brianna Hennessy, who was raised in Leitrim and attended uOttawa, secured a spot at the Tokyo Games with a 4th place finish in the VL2 200m race at the qualifier in Szeged, Hungary.
Hennessy’s ORCC teammate Mike Trauner, a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and the war in Afghanistan, was unable to qualify.
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Heading to Hungary, Trauner seemed the more likely of the two to contend for a Paralympic spot. Like many competing at the event, it was his last opportunity to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
But, this likely won’t be the end of his Paralympic pursuit: Trauner told the Sports Pages before travelling to Hungary that he’d also like to make a run at qualifying for the Paris Games, planned for 2024.
If what Trauner’s been through is any indication, it’s that he shouldn’t be counted out.
Born in Sudbury, Trauner, now 41, followed the footsteps of his father, and both of his grandfathers, and studied engineering at Cambrian College. At 18, and at a friend’s insistence, Trauner went to a military recruitment event. There, he was approached by a recruitment officer, who Trauner remembers telling him that he looked like a perfect infantryman.
“And I (had) no idea what the infantry was,” Trauner remembers, “And he asked me, ‘Do you like camping, and traveling, and all that kind of stuff?’
“And I said, sure, why not? He pretty much suckered me in to signing the dotted line right there,” Trauner said, with a laugh.
He served 19 years in the military. His time was mostly spent with the Royal Canadian Regiment’s Third Battalion, based in Petawawa.
He deployed to Bosnia, and, later, Afghanistan, where Canadian soldiers were sent following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
Trauner’s life was changed, permanently, on Dec. 5, 2008. While on a foot patrol near Kandahar — one of the main locations where Canadian, American and other allied forces were stationed during the war, Trauner was severely injured by an improvised explosive device.
The explosion blew off both his legs and left his left arm broken in three places and the hand attached to it with 25 different breaks. Trauner clinically died twice during the ensuing surgeries to save his life.
In early 2009, he was flown back to Canada and began a more than year-long recovery stint at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.
“Basically, it took me 13 months in the hospital to learn to get my life back in order again; even doing simple things — like shaving and brushing my teeth — was difficult,” Trauner said.
That recovery would include 18 surgeries and an equal amount of blood transfusions. He moved back to Petawawa in early 2010, and continued to work for the Forces until May 2017. His long list of surgeries drew out until near his retirement.
During Trauner’s lengthy recovery, he was introduced to rowing.
Before his injuries, when he was younger, Trauner played sports that included football, baseball and did some track and field, as well. He took a liking, mostly, to contact sports, he said. He and other soldiers would also play sports in the military, but it wasn’t at a competitive level.
But he immediately took a liking to being out on the water.
“The best way to describe it is that in day-to-day life, people see my disability and, I think to a degree, society kind of sees you as somebody who has prosthetics or a wheelchair and they automatically assume that you’re limited — or limited in your capacity,” Trauner said.
“But when I’m on the water, I’m just another athlete… On water, I’m not disabled at all. I’m just another athlete, like everybody else.”
In 2016, in the lead up to the Invictus Games, Trauner was invited to an outing to meet other former servicemen and women who had found some solace in sport.
It was there that he met Prince Harry, the founder of the Games, who challenged Trauner to get involved.
“So I accepted Prince Harry’s challenge,” he said. “I stayed home for months and months training, trying to get ready for hand-cycling and pararowing.”
Trauner would win two gold medals in rowing at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, an experience that he described as “overwhelming” and more impressive than he expected it to be. He realized at those Games how much he liked the renewed competitive environment and challenge that high-level competitive sport presented him.
He also appreciated that it gave him back the ability to do what he did so proudly throughout his career: represent Canada.
“I basically gave up for a Maple Leaf for another Maple Leaf,” he said.
A little over a month after the 2017 Invictus Games, Trauner attended a trial event back in Toronto that the Canadian Paralympic Committee were putting on in search of athletes. Coaches there encouraged Trauner to switch from rowing to canoe-kayak — something that was okay with him, since it kept him on the water.
“I just stuck with it, and I got addicted to paddling,” Trauner said.
Over the last few years, Trauner’s worked his way through qualifying for paracanoeing through the provincial level and national level, before, eventually, landing a spot with Team Canada, which he did earlier this year. With the pandemic pushing many Paralympic trials to this year, Trauner went into the qualifiers in Hungary needing a top-4 finish to secure a spot at the Games.
On Thursday, he placed 2nd in his first heat, and then 4th in his semifinal. He came one placing short of making the ‘A’ final for his event, the VL3 Men 200m. In the ‘B’ final, he placed 4th.
“My plan is to (try to) do Paris, as well,” Trauner said before the event. “But, I mean, who knows what’s going to happen next? We had COVID last year, and this year; in 2024, who knows what’s going to happen?”
Gabe Ferron-Bouius, of the Rideau Canoe Club, also competed at the Paralympic qualifier this week.
He was also unable to secure a spot at the Games. He placed 5th in his first para-kayaking heat, followed by 8th in the semifinal of the KL3 Men 200m.