Aquatics Canoe-Kayak Elite Amateur Sport Para Sport

Day 10 Recap: Hennessy impresses in groundbreaking Paralympic debut

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 & Dan Plouffe

Brianna Hennessy‘s appearance at these Paralympic Games is already historic. She is the first woman ever to represent Canada in para-canoe, and she’s doing it in two events.

Hennessy paddled confidently on the water in the qualification heats to finish third in both of her events on Day 9. Her time in the Va’a Single 200-metre VL2 sprint was 1:05.608, and then shortly after she completed the Kayak Single 200m KL1 sprint in 59.656 seconds.

Only the heat winners gained automatic entry into the the final, so Hennessy will now race in the semi-finals. The paddling newcomer showed she will definitely be a strong contender for a top-3 placing her semi-final heat to reach the final, after finishing within a few lengths of the top finishers in her heats and well ahead of some others.

Her Va’a semis and finals are tonight (Ottawa time), with the kayak semis and final tomorrow evening.

Brianna Hennessy. Photo provided.

In yesterday’s Ottawa at the Paralympics Daily Newsletter, we shared how Hennessy found herself excelling in parasports beyond anyone’s expectations, including her own. Sports Pages reporter Madalyn Howitt spoke with Hennessy and her coach Joel Hazzan of the Ottawa River Canoe Club ahead of the Games and learned how Hennessy’s meteoric rise on the water is indicative of her exceptional talent and determined work ethic. 

“I could probably count on one hand the number of athletes who compete in both canoe and kayak at the Olympics or Paralympics. It’s not normal for people do both,” said Hazzan, adding that it goes to show how truly outstanding Hennessy’s athleticism is.

“It is totally uncommon for someone to come in [to canoeing] from a different sport and make the Paralympics in a year,” underlined Hazzan, who started training Hennessy in August 2020 after she made the switch from wheelchair rugby to para canoe. “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.

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Competing at the Paralympics in para canoe is 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.”

As for these Games, Hazzan is just thrilled to be watching Hennessy shine. “She’s already blown by all my expectations,” he smiled. “Just what she’s accomplished already has been amazing, and I think anything’s possible.”

Hennessy races tonight in the second Va’a semi-final at 8:51 p.m. ET, while the Va’a final is at 10:02 p.m. ET.

Also tonightCamille Bérubé will swim the 50m butterfly S7 heats at 8:53 p.m. ET. If she advances to the finals, she’ll swim again early tomorrow morning in Ottawa at 5:04 a.m. ET. 

Olympic paddler Maddy Schmidt wins nationals back on home water

Hennessy is not the only Ottawa paddler making waves on the water. Like Hennessy, Maddy Schmidt started her journey to Tokyo at the Ottawa River Canoe Club before moving over to the Rideau Canoe Club as a teenager. Now officially an Olympian, Schmidt was back in town to compete in last week’s Canoe Kayak National Championships at Rideau, paddling away with a gold medal in the women’s K-1 1000-metre sprint.

Schmidt shared with the Sports Pages‘ Madalyn Howitt what it felt like to be back racing on the water with her hometown club, especially after the whirlwind experience competing at the Olympics.

Maddy Schmidt at the 2021 Canoe Kayak National Championships. Photo by Madalyn Howitt.

“I love coming home after a really long season and putting on a purple singlet for the Rideau Canoe Club,” she said, pointing out that the faded purple singlet she was wearing once belonged to her mother Louise, a former national team paddler.

“I love hanging out with the Rideau girls – my ‘Purple People’ – but I’m just so happy this event is even happening,” she added.

Only a few weeks out of her debut at the Olympics, Schmidt is still reflecting on that whirlwind of an adventure.

“It was a crazy cool experience — one I will never forget,” she shared. “It was busy, it was emotional, it was a roller coaster. In terms of racing, I don’t think we performed as well as we had hoped, and learning from that is a big one.”

Schmidt and her teammates placed 11th in the women’s K-4 500m event and 17th in the women’s K-2 500m in Tokyo, but she stressed that she thoroughly enjoyed her experience.

“Just being in the Olympic Village is so cool. It’s such a surreal experience to be around the best of the best and such specialized specimens – you’ve got the big shot-putters and then you’ve got the little gymnasts. It’s so incredible and everyone’s so focused and unique in their own way. It’s really inspiring,” she said.

In fact, Schmidt was so determined to embrace the Olympic experience that she and her partner Simon McTavish, also a kayak sprinter, created a YouTube channel to document their respective journeys to Tokyo and subsequent adventures in kayak sprinting.

Schmidt will next take on the World Championships, to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark from Sept. 16-19.

“I’m hoping to do some different races there and am excited to just compete again,” said Schmidt, who hopes to race the 1000m again along with the 500m.

Afterwards, Paris 2024 is already on Schmidt’s mind.

“It’ll happen really fast, so I want to keep the momentum going, but I also want to make sure that I’m setting myself up for the rest of my life as well.”

Schmidt will be studying kinesiology at Dalhousie University in the fall, taking on a full course load. She said her goal is to graduate before the next Olympics, but she admitted she’s a bit nervous for this new challenge.

“I’m going in a very intense semester with a lot of classes. It’s intense in another way [than] what I just went through, [but] it’ll be nice to change it up,” she remarked. “The year after the Olympics is generally less stressful [for] training – there’s less it on the line. You can kind of take a step back and broaden your horizons a little bit, so I think going back to school will be good.”

She may be setting herself up for success off the water but given her consistently strong racing in recent years and infectious enthusiasm for the sport, Schmidt is also setting herself up well for a strong showing at worlds, Paris 2024, and beyond.

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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