Sport: Canoe Sprint
Local Club: Ottawa River Canoe Club
By Madalyn Howitt
Returning to competitive sports after the life-altering impacts of a traumatic injury takes patience, perseverance, and a tremendous amount of support.
Returning to sports after serious injury, taking up an entirely new discipline, and making it to the Paralympics within a year? That takes all the above plus a whole heck of a lot of talent. And that’s what first-time Paralympian Brianna Hennessy has.
She will be competing in para-canoe and -kayak at the Games, even though up until a year ago she had never even tried competing in a water sport.
“I’m still in awe of myself. I wake up in the morning and I’m like, what is happening,” laughed Hennessy.
After taking up para-canoe at the Ottawa Rideau Canoe Club (ORCC), Hennessy initially had her sights set on qualifying for the Paris 2024 Games. The more she trained on the water though, the faster her skills developed.
It all came to fruition back in May of this year, when at a World Cup event in Hungary she surprised herself with a 4th-place finish in the women’s VL2 200m para-canoe sprint.
This qualified her for Tokyo, a full three years before her original Paralympic goal.
And through a lucky turn of events, Hennessy will also be competing in para-kayaking after qualifying for yet another sprinting event.
“I could probably count on one hand the number of athletes who compete in both canoe and kayak at the Olympics or Paralympics,” said Joel Hazzan. “It’s not normal for people do both,” he said, which goes to show how truly outstanding Hennessy’s athleticism is.
It’s not a position that Hennessy ever thought she’d be in. After she was struck by a car in 2014 that left her with tetraplegia and chronic pain, she was introduced to wheelchair rugby by the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre to help her healing process. She took to it quickly, and soon was playing on the Ontario provincial team and with the elite U.S. Quad Rugby Association.
“Before I started wheelchair rugby, all I did was compare myself to the independence I had before my accident,” she said. Already an accomplished athlete before her injuries, Hennessy credits parasports with helping her regain her confidence as an athlete.
“Parasports for me have been the greatest part of my therapy, coping with my terrible chronic pain, and the only thing that makes me feel like myself again since my accident.,” she said. “They give me a sense of normalcy.”
Yet when the pandemic shut down team events, her friend Patrice Dagenais, co-captain of Canada’s men’s wheelchair rugby team, suggested she join the ORCC and take up a sport that could be done safely.
It was there that she met Hazzan and the team that helped her charge full speed ahead towards Tokyo.
“It is totally uncommon for someone to come in [to canoeing] from a different sport and make the Paralympics in a year,” said Hazzan, who started training Hennessy in August 2020. “You could tell she was athletic and had arm and shoulder strength, [but] when she said the Paralympics were something she’d be interested in and I kind of looked at her like, ‘I don’t do miracles.’”
“But clearly, she does,” he laughed.
So, does Hennessy feel her experience in a rugby wheelchair prepared her for life in a canoe?
“I’m going to be honest, it’s the complete opposite muscles — in wheelchair rugby we’re pushing and in canoeing we’re pulling back,” she laughed, “but my strength conditioning and my body type has kind of changed over the past year [thanks to] the different muscles that I’ve been developing.”
Hennessy takes care to note the team effort that has propelled her towards the Paralympics, sharing that along with Hazzan, assistant coaches Bevin Schmidt and Justin Ranicourt had a particularly strong impact on her rapid development in the sport.
“Paddling is an individual sport, but there is such a great team behind me. I might be the face of the production but I’m not the producer,” she said.
Hazzan said Hennessy’s exceptional success on the water will hopefully inject some new energy into the canoe club’s other programming, which slowed down during the pandemic. “I’m hoping this will reinvigorate some of our high-performance programs and get the kids excited.”
He noted that Hennessy will also be the first woman ever to represent Canada in para-canoe since the sport is making its Paralympic debut, adding yet another remarkable achievement to her list.
Hennessy’s meteoric rise in para-canoeing and para-kayaking has meant that Hazzan doesn’t have any specific expectations of her going into these Games.
“She’s already blown by all my expectations,” he laughed. “Just what she’s accomplished already has been amazing, and I think anything’s possible.”
As for the Games ahead, Hennessy is ready to simply enjoy her newfound para-canoe and para-kayak community.
“When we’re all together in one place I feel like I’m around my family and more myself,” she said. “All of these athletes inspire me every day, and I’m absolutely humbled to share the world stage with them.”
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