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Ottawa at the Paralympics Day 9: Hennessy ready to make history in para-canoe

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This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Paralympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive it, for free, here.

By Madalyn Howitt, Martin Cleary & Charlie Pinkerton

Brianna Hennessy. Photo provided

Day 9 of the Paralympics was another thrilling day for Canada’s athletes, with medals won in the swimming pool and in shot put, but it was a quiet day for Ottawa’s athletes, who did not compete.

There are, however, some exciting events ahead for Ottawa’s remaining Paralympians.

Ottawa’s Brianna Hennessy is gearing up for what is already a history-making appearance at these Paralympic Games, and she hasn’t even raced yet.

Hennessy will be the first woman ever to represent Canada in para-canoe, since the sport is making its Paralympic debut. The first-time Paralympian will be competing in the discipline in two different categories: the first is para-kayak which uses a standard-size boat, and the second is in the Va’a category, which uses a longer boat often including a floating device on either side to ensure it doesn’t tip over. 

We’ll have more about Hennessy’s remarkable appearance at the Games tomorrow, but first we want to take you back to how her journey in parasport began. 

Hennessy didn’t always plan to become a paracanoer, which our own Charlie Pinkerton discovered when he spoke to her back in the spring. It was then that he learned about her long road to recovery after a traumatic car accident, and her triumphant rise in multiple parasports. 

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On Nov. 11, 2014, while at a work conference in Toronto, a cab driver struck Hennessy as she was crossing the street. Her head smashed into the car’s windshield and she was knocked unconscious, breaking the highest vertebra in her neck, and severing 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.

“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.”

The daughter of two high-level athletes, she was born into a life with sport. Growing up, Hennessy played AA hockey, provincial-level rugby and was an amateur boxing champ in Ontario.

Her parents believe it’s because of her background in sports and her ability to react quickly that she wasn’t killed in 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 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 took on the unusual experience of competing in her first race ever at the Canadian Paralympic trials. She later earned her Paralympic spot through the World Championships in Hungary earlier this summer, kicking off her high-speed trajectory toward Tokyo.You can watch Hennessy’s debut at the Paralympics in the Va’a Single 200m VL2 heats at 8:40 p.m., eastern time, tonight, and then shortly again catch her competing in the Kayak Single 200m KL1 heats at 9:50 p.m.

Other events to keep on your viewing schedule: Swimmer Camille Bérubé is prepping for her final event of the Games: the 50m butterfly S7 event. The heats for the 50m event are set to start at 8:53 p.m., eastern time, on Sept. 2, and if she advances to the finals, she’ll swim again early on September 3 at 5:04am eastern time. 

Speaking of paddling, back home in Ottawa the Rideau Canoe Club had an excellent showing at last week’s Canoe Kayak National Championships, held at Mooney’s Bay.

Sprinters from across Canada competed in canoe, kayak, and para canoe disciplines and raced in dozens of events each day of the six-day tournament. 

Our reporter Martin Cleary recapped the event and followed along with the RCC’s success on the podium.

The 120-year-old Rideau Canoe Club took three giant strides in Canadian canoe-kayak sprint history on the weekend, after playing host to the seven-day, pandemic-protected national championships.

By winning its third Canadian title in a row (a club first), Rideau took the national aggregate points burgee for the 10th time (447 points), moving into second overall in that category and breaking away from Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club at nine.On Saturday and Sunday, Rideau earned two gold, two silver and one bronze medals to finish with a total of 31 medals – 14 gold, nine silver and eight bronze. Rideau also won the girls’ U16 and girls’ U 18 age-class burgees.

Rideau’s other national burgee victories were in 2019, 2018, 2015, 2002, 1985, 1973, 1927, 1925 and 1923. The 2020 nationals were cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. It also has been an eight-time runner-up and a 12-time third-place finisher.

Tomorrow, we’ll profile returning Olympian and RCC member Maddy Schmidt, who captured a gold medal at Nationals. We’ll also hear her thoughts on her experience in Tokyo, so stay tuned! 

This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Paralympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive it, for free, here.

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