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Ottawa at the Paralympics Day 11: Hennessy continues historic paddling debut

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By Kieran Heffernan, Madalyn Howitt, Stuart Miller-Davis & Dan Plouffe

Brianna Hennessy continued competition in the VL2 Va’a Single 200m as the first Canadian woman to compete in the newly-added Paralympic canoe sprint event, and she is quickly leaving her mark on the sport she took up less than a year ago.
Hennessy needed to finish top-3 in her semifinal heat to move on to the finals, and she delivered, finishing 2nd with a time of 1:06.316.

Brianna Hennessy. Photo: Scott Grant/CPC

Hennessy finished 5th in the finals later that day, clocking in at 1:03.254. The gold medallist, Emma Wiggs from Great Britain, broke away from the group early and finished with an impressive lead, though the next four finishers including Hennessy all finished within two seconds of each other. The Ottawa River Canoe Club paddler was 6.226 seconds off the top spot, but just 1.105 away from a medal. Check out a recap of the final below.

Hennessy will finish off her Paralympic schedule tonight (in Ottawa time) with the KL1 Kayak Single 200m semifinal, and if she finishes top-3 in her heat, the final an hour later.

Camille Bérubé swam in her fifth and final race of these Paralympics last night, the S7 50m butterfly, and did not qualify for the final of that event, though she did achieve her pre-Games goal of reaching a final earlier on.

Ottawa Paralympians Day 11 schedule:

One of Ottawa’s best parasport athletes isn’t in Tokyo because his soccer event was removed from Paralympics

Sam Charron. Photo: Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee

Orleans’ Samuel Charron is one of the best para-soccer players in the world. He’s not in Tokyo though, because his sport, 7-a-side para soccer for athletes with cerebral palsy or other muscular coordination impairments, was removed as a Paralympic Games sport after Rio 2016 (5-a-side football/soccer remains on the card for athletes who are visually impaired).

For Charron, it’s an honour to have been twice named Canada Soccer’s para-soccer player of the year. But having his sport recognized is more important.

Charron was born with a hole in the left side of his brain, which causes cerebral palsy. He began playing soccer at age four. At 14, he played his first international match with the little-known national para-soccer team that’s specifically for athletes with cerebral palsy.

Before joining Team Canada, Charron said he had tried “to make (his) body as normal as possible,” but realized through playing with older athletes who share his condition that “it doesn’t stop us from doing what we want.”

“We can represent our country and play the sport we love,” Charron told the Sports Pages in an interview.

But where Charron sees a weakness for the program is the public awareness of it. If more people knew about the team, he says it would benefit not only the team but also other athletes with cerebral palsy as well.

“Our program has been running on word of mouth for players,” Charron said. “Once you get more people to talk about it, then we can get more funding and more support.”

Throughout his career, Charron has bounced back-and-forth between playing non-para-soccer and para-soccer.

File photo

“There’s a lot more space to cover compared to 11-on-11,” Charron said in reference to para-soccer, which is played 7-a-side.

“You have to work a lot more as a team because there’s less people to cover up mistakes. In 7-a-side you can really recognize what teams are better and can cover.”

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Charron wrapped up his university playing career with St. Francis Xavier’s men’s varsity team in 2019.

He played all 12 games for the X-Men in his final year, helping them earn a berth at the U Sports national championship.

“It’s probably one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Charron said about his career with St. FX.

Charron recommends that others with cerebral palsy also play both versions of the game.

“Disability is already not stopping them from playing the sport they love. If you’re able to do it, I recommend it 100 per cent,” said Charron, who played competitive soccer with Cumberland United and now continues to play for the Ottawa TFC men’s team.

While he plays defender in the non-para game, Charron is a goal-scoring midfielder with the national para team. In 51 international appearances, he’s scored 43 goals and recorded 14 assists.

At the 2019 International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football (IFCPF) World Cup in Spain, Canada’s last international tournament due to the pandemic, Charron scored 6 goals in 6 games and was named tournament MVP, while Canada finished 12th.

But much like his preference for his sport to be recognized over him, personally, the 22-year-old says it’s team success that he’s chasing.

“The awards are nice but if we can play better as a collective, I’ll trade individual awards away for awards as team in a heartbeat.”

He’s still chasing his ultimate goal of reaching the Paralympics, though that’s a dream that make take some time to achieve. The International Paralympic Committee made the decision in 2015 to remove 5-a-side football due to insufficient international participation, it said.

“Hopefully, when the sport comes back into the Paralympics, if we can qualify, that will give us an enormous boost of confidence but also even more coverage for people with disabilities,” Charron indicated.

It was a pleasure, Canada: Ottawa’s golden girl Vanessa Gilles on her Olympic journey

While we’re talking soccer, and with the Tokyo Games winding down, we thought it would be a great time to get you caught up on another unforgettable soccer star.

Vanessa Gilles was impossible to miss in one of the Team Canada’s biggest moments of the entire Games — the women’s soccer team’s gold medal win, watched by 4.4 million Canadians on CBC.

On a team made up of legendary veterans and exciting young talent, Gilles stood out as a confident and consistent defensive player.

“It was a pleasure,” Gilles said of the tournament, speaking to the Sports Pages‘ Madalyn Howitt over the phone from Bordeaux, France. “That’s the word that pops out to me right away – I had a pleasure playing every game and representing Canada.”

“The love that you’re surrounded by in the sport is uncanny. Hearing huge players like Steph [Labbe], [Desiree] Scott, and Christine Sinclair say in a huddle, ‘No matter what happens we love you and we’re proud of each other,’ that support has the power to calm me down even in stressful situations.”

After waiting patiently on the sidelines during the first few matches of the tournament, Gilles wasted no time proving why she was selected for the team once she was moved into the starting lineup in Canada’s third match of the Games against Great Britain.

Strong defensive plays and skilled footwork on the ball proved why she’s a formidable centre back, but it was surprise moments like her game-winning penalty kick against Brazil that cemented her as a breakout star on the team.

“I’m definitely most proud of having stepped up and put myself in a position to take penalty kicks,” said Gilles of her time on the Olympic pitch. “We practised [them] almost every day, but that’s not been one of my strong suits in the past, [so] I think any of my former coaches or teammates were shocked when they saw me walk out for those PKs against Brazil or against Sweden.”

Vanessa Gilles (3rd from right) pictured with her now-teammate Christine Sinclair while Gilles was a student at Louis-Riel high school. Photo provided

After London 2012, when Gilles was a student at Louis-Riel high school, four members of Canada’s 2012 bronze medal winning team visited the school, and a young Gilles brushed shoulders with Olympians.

“I don’t remember anything specific [they said], probably because I was so starstruck,” laughed Gilles, looking at the pictures of her teenage self next to the soccer legends. She does however remember the feeling of meeting them and the impact they had on her own goals in the sport. “I remember standing beside Sinclair, Karina LeBlanc, Diana Matheson and Rhian Wilkinson and [realizing] that these are the players that I want to follow,” she said.

In particular, Gilles’s future teammate Sinclair made an impact on the young player.

“She’s one of the best captains I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing under. You want to make her proud and to do right by her,” Gilles said. “I remember the power that her words had on the whole room back at my high school and comparing it to the power that her words have in a huddle before going out to the field is just incredible.”

Gilles will have to wait a bit longer to celebrate her gold medal on home turf; she flew back to France immediately after the Olympics and soon after that flew to Sweden for a Champions League tournament. She plans to touch down in Ottawa in mid-September for a much-deserved rest, however.

“Ottawa is just such an amazing city for me,” she said. “Walking down Bank Street, getting a Beavertail hanging around Rideau. Those little moments with my friends and family will mean the world to me.”

Ottawa TFC U13 Girls OPDL player Vanessa Ephraim.

The next generation of young players will certainly be keen to get a look at Gilles’ gold medal. At her home Ottawa TFC Soccer Club, members of the girls’ academy got together to watch the heart-stopping gold medal game.

“I was screaming, we were all screaming, and just so happy for our country,” recounted Ottawa TFC under-13 defender Vanessa Ephraim, who says she draws inspiration from Gilles, seeing that she can make it to the top even though she came from a smaller city like Ottawa instead of an American sports factory.

“Some people kind of think that you can’t make it anywhere,” explained Ephraim. “But knowing that you can get there, it kind of makes me happy, because I know that if I just keep working hard, I can do it.”

You can read more about the hometown reaction, as well as reflections from her youth coach, Raz El-Asmar, about Gilles’ journey from a first-time organized soccer player at age 15 into an Olympic champion here.

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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