By Dan Plouffe
After finishing just over one second away from the podium in her Paralympic debut less than a year after taking up paddling, Brianna Hennessy hasn’t slowed her pace one little bit.
“Tokyo, it just kind of lit the fire in my heart even more,” highlights the 37-year-old, set to get her international season underway Saturday in Poland, noting the next Paralympics is just two years away.
“I had maybe a different mindset than a lot of the athletes, especially who had to deal with that extra year delay, and training so hard,” she explains. “I didn’t have that sort of dip mentally. I really wanted to get to work. I didn’t want to waste any time and I wanted to take advantage of the fact that other athletes were maybe taking a break.”
Still relatively new to canoe-kayak, Hennessy recognized she had a lot to learn in the pursuit she took up during the pandemic, even though she proved to be world-class already on her sport’s biggest stage.
“I’m definitely the newest kid on the block. I always consider myself the underdog in this sport, because everyone else has five or 10 years of experience on me,” signals the Ottawa River Canoe Club athlete. “I’m really working hard to try and close that gap between myself and the other girls who are in my class, so I just have so much to learn in such a condensed time. Every day, I’m just trying to soak up like a sponge.”
Hennessy focused a lot on strength training this winter and feels she’s made sizeable gains in power and endurance. Hennessy is constantly switching between training in a kayak and a paracanoe (called va’a, the name of the adaptive boat) and sees plenty of room for technical improvements too.
She recently got a new canoe that she’s barely got to sit in before bringing it overseas, so working on personal customization and accessibility pieces will be a key focus early.
“That’s gonna be my biggest challenge I think, just not being used to the horse I’m riding,” notes Hennessy, whose VL2 and KL1 women’s 200 metres races are about an hour apart at the season-opening World Cup event for para athletes. “At this World Cup, we’re going to be able to sort of quantify any improvements that I’ve had since Tokyo.”
Hennessy made her way down to Florida a month before most Canadian paddlers went south this winter, which also allowed her to train with Tampa Bay’s USA Wheelchair Rugby League team (look for more coverage on this next week on OttawaSportsPages.ca).
Wheelchair rugby was Hennessy’s first parasport love, but when the pandemic shut it down, Ottawa Stingers teammate and fellow Paralympian Patrice Dagenais suggested she try out paddling, which wound up launching her towards Tokyo.
Training and competing on the court and in the water sent Hennessy all over the map in recent months; the list includes Tampa, Chicago, California, Nova Scotia, southern Ontario, and maybe some others…
“I barely know what’s going on half the time,” cracks Hennessy, who hasn’t been in Ottawa for a full week in 2022.
“I mean, I love traveling. I love the excitement of it. I love being on the move,” she adds, though the impact on her health is less thrilling.
Hennessy gets vertigo due to severed arteries in her brain, on top of the chronic pain she lives with as a result of being struck by a taxi in Toronto in 2014.
“It’s very taxing on me to travel. I usually leave a day off after I travel to try and recover at least,” details Hennessy, who also misses her family and cats when she’s away. “It’s hard to get used to and to get through, but I guess I just try to focus on the fact that Paris 2024 is coming up pretty quick, and this is all part of the building blocks.
“I look at it one (stop) at a time, and I truly enjoy my time when I’m back home.”
‘Out of this world’ support from paddling family
At her side just about every day is Ottawa River Canoe Club head coach Joel Hazzan, who joined her in Tampa to “train me every day for six weeks when I was down there, one-on-one” – a setup not many others on Team Canada can access.
“I wouldn’t change that for the world because that’s what’s enabled me to progress this quickly,” Hennessy underlines.
Hazzan sacrificed a bunch of time away from his family and managed ORCC from a distance, Hennessy outlines, not to mention driving her and her boat down to Florida, and then making the return trip solo while she played wheelchair rugby.
“This guy’s unbelievable. The lengths that Joel goes to for me so that I can try to excel in these different sports and to support me, it’s pretty incredible,” Hennessy indicates. “The paddle family that I have around me, that’s what really drives me. They always have my back and they’re always looking out for me, and it makes me so proud when I wear my Ottawa River Canoe Club jersey.”
Hennessy also gives much thanks for “out of this world” commitment from another supporter of hers.
When she came home from California, Hennessy went into “full panic mode” when her customized paddles disappeared from the roof of a car (likely stolen, since her name and a phone number are on them). With national team trials in five days, getting appropriate new equipment delivered in time was impossible – unless of course you’ve got a friend in Peter Patasi, a past Olympian who makes high-performance paddles by hand.
“He went to his shop, basically slept in his van for three nights, and worked like 12-hour days, just to make me two new paddles so I would have them to go to national trials,” recounts Hennessy, who later received another backup set from Patasi before heading off to Europe. “Nobody else in the country would have been able to get paddles; that would have been it. This is what I mean about the team around me. It’s just unbelievable.”
Off Hennessy went to clinch her spot on the national team in Dartmouth, N.S., where she’ll also likely compete at the Canoe Sprint/Para World Championships from Aug. 3-7. Having taken up the sport at the height of COVID, Hennessy is keen to perform in front of her supporters and the Canadian canoe-kayak community, essentially for the first time, come the worlds.
Hennessy says it was “weird” to not have spectators at the Tokyo Paralympics, though a member of Canada’s sport therapy team brought an Indigenous drum that they’d use to represent the heartbeat of Canada cheering for them.
“That was really cool, and it really stuck with you,” recalls Hennessy, who placed eighth in kayak and fifth in canoe at her Games debut.
“But, you know, I’m super pumped to have some family there with me this time,” she adds, noting that the event also serves as a great exposure opportunity for para canoe-kayak in Canada. “We’re using the World Cup as a building block to World Champs, so I’m really working hard for that and I’m really excited to actually race on Canadian turf.”
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.