By Dan Plouffe
Fresh off of winning the first World Cup medals of her paddling career on May 28 in Poland, Brianna Hennessy is going to Vegas!
It’s not quite the celebratory jaunt you might expect, but the Ottawa Paralympian will certainly be creating a ruckus when she competes in the On the Strip: Summer Slam wheelchair rugby tournament from June 10-12.
Hennessy has quickly become a world-class talent in para canoe-kayak, which she took up when the pandemic struck, but she’s taking a little pause in her paddling season to return to her first parasport love.
“Especially in those couples years after my accident, I was in a very sad place. I was super depressed. I didn’t want to leave my house,” recalls Hennessy, who rediscovered her freedom and independence once she took to the court with the Ottawa Stingers wheelchair rugby club.
“I think that I’m wired for wheelchair rugby,” adds Hennessy, who was a provincial/national champion in hockey, rugby and boxing before she was struck by a taxicab in 2014. “That’s kind of what I’m built for – my personality and my sport spirit is definitely with wheelchair rugby.”
It was Stingers teammate and three-time Paralympian Patrice Dagenais who first suggested Hennessy try paddling when COVID shut down wheelchair rugby practices and competitions. One year later, Hennessy wound up finishing just over one second away from the podium at the Paralympics.
Paddling has quickly become the 37-year-old Ottawa River Canoe Club athlete priority sports pursuit. Hennessy, who’d never previously tried any water sports, now loves being out on water and finds it therapeutic, she loves the competition, and she treasures the exceptional “paddling family” she’s found, who go above-and-beyond to support her.
But she still uses wheelchair rugby as cross-training for paddling – she pushes forward in her rugby wheelchair and pulls her paddle backwards in the water, so the sports don’t tax the same muscles. The calendars for both sports generally align reasonably well, with wheelchair rugby tournaments stretching from the fall through to April national championships, and paddling competitions going from spring to early fall.
“I’m definitely torn between the three sports (rugby, canoe and kayak). I love them all. I would probably try other ones too. I just love doing different things and challenging myself,” Hennessy indicates. “For sure I’m looking at Paris 2024 for my paddling. But I’m working very hard at the same time trying to develop my skills in wheelchair rugby.”
Wheelchair rugby is far from a recreational pursuit for Hennessy – she competes at a very high level. She plays in the world’s top domestic wheelchair rugby league, which features 44 teams from across the U.S. competing in the mixed-gender sport.
Having travelled to tournaments in Florida with Team Ontario and Quebec, Hennessy caught the attention of the Tampa Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch (WWAR) club and was asked to join their team – now ranked fourth in the country – a couple years ago.
Each club is allowed to have one non-U.S. resident on their roster. Hennessy competes alongside a few other female American players in the league, but she is the lone woman who’s been selected as an international import.
“Tampa is the only team that took a chance on bringing a female in. It’s quite an honour,” highlights Hennessy, who also mixes in wintertime paddling training while in Florida. “To be able to empower and inspire other women with disabilities, to show that it can be done, is super powerful for me.”
Paddler dreams of competing in Paralympic wheelchair rugby as well
Hennessy had been invited to tryout for Team Canada wheelchair rugby this year, but it conflicted with her paddling national team trials.
“Playing on the Tampa team is such a high level – like I’m playing against all the Team USA players – and it’s really pushing my limits,” she signals. “I’m hoping that I’m becoming more of an asset maybe one day for the national team by having the opportunity to play in that league and getting that experience.”
While playing for Canada’s wheelchair rugby team (which currently features an all-male lineup) is still within her sights, Hennessy would also love to one day play for a Canadian women’s team. Currently, only 4% of wheelchair rugby players are female globally, though there are sparks of growth.
Before COVID hit, many of the world’s top women’s players would play at a Houston tournament, which will resume next year. Hennessy also competed on a Wonder Woman team of the best female North American players in a Chicago event where they placed third of eight entries.
COVID wiped out a women’s world championships that had been set for Paris and hasn’t yet been rescheduled, but having more competitive international events would be the next step towards women’s wheelchair rugby’s inclusion in the Paralympics, Hennessy explains.
After becoming the first Canadian woman to compete in para canoe for the discipline’s Paralympic debut in Tokyo, Hennessy hopes one day she can do the same in wheelchair rugby.
“Oh my God, I wish that they could have it – women’s wheelchair rugby at the Paralympics would be amazing,” she smiles. “Even if they end up doing it in like 10 or 15 years and I have to come out of retirement, you’re gonna see me there.”
First up will be Hennessy’s competition in Las Vegas this coming weekend. Though it falls a little outside the traditional wheelchair rugby season, she wasn’t about to turn down the chance to play in the event next to Freemont Street.
And there’s a strong reciprocal commitment between the Tampa Warriors squad and Hennessy, who turned down a half dozen offers from other teams to return for a third season with Tampa.
“I’m super pumped to go back and play with them,” Hennessy underlines. “I’m very much attached to my brotherhood in Tampa. That’s where my loyalties lie. They took a chance on me and have been backing me for this entire journey. I’ll do anything for those guys.”
Speaking about her journey can be both traumatizing and powerful for Paralympian
Not long before her season-opening paddling World Cup, Hennessy was back in Tampa for her team’s annual gala, which raised $350,000 in one night.
Hennessy delivered a powerful speech at the event about how she and her teammates are like phoenix rising from the ashes. She told the crowd her life story, including the deeply personal details of her life-altering accident, which had her clinging to life in hospital, and still leaves her in chronic pain on a daily basis.
“Doing speeches, it is like opening a wound for me. It can be quite traumatic to go over some of these things again, and I do find that I even get sort of like PTSD images of my accident after I do these talks – they can sort of resurface again for the next couple of weeks afterwards,” Hennessy details.
“But for me, it’s worth it if I’m helping others along the way, because I have found a path, I have found a positive outlet, I have found a way to find purpose back in my life, so I know it’s possible for others that really are stuck in that dark place.”
It’s rewarding to see smiles back on the faces of people she’s encouraged to try parasports after they acquired disabilities, though Hennessy doesn’t aim to inspire only though sport. After speaking at the Ottawa Sports Pages‘ 10th anniversary event this past fall (see video above), Hennessy met a young woman who’d also been injured by a car and was terrified of getting back behind the wheel for an upcoming driving test.
“I told her that what you’re fighting for is to get some independence back in your life, and I told her how I went through that process and what it was like for me, at an emotional level, to be pushing those boundaries again, and taking back some control,” recounts Hennessy, who later received a thank-you message for helping her feel more comfortable before the test that she passed.
“She wrote me this letter and it just filled my heart with happiness,” continues the University of Ottawa grad. “It brought me to tears, because you don’t necessarily really know a lot of the time if you even are empowering others around you.
“My motive, I guess underneath it all, is I’m hoping that along my journey I can either change someone’s perspective or inspire someone.
“That’s the kind of stuff that just makes me feel like I’m doing something real, that I’m leaving a mark.”
In an email to the Sports Pages, Hennessy shared many inspiring reflections on her journey in parasport and what it means to her to be able to compete. Here are some of her words:
“Since I acquired my disabilities, it’s taken an incredible amount of discipline, hard work and grit to rise up and compete at the international level.
It took me over 2 years to try my first para sport. I was stubborn with accepting that my disabilities would be permanent and that I would need adaptive equipment to play a sport.
Despite what I lost from my catastrophic car accident physically, healing and piecing back together the hope in my heart was even harder. Being an elite athlete has been the biggest part of my identity my entire life. After my accident, I thought that I had lost that purpose forever.
Too often many people with disabilities, including myself, focus on what we’ve lost, but parasport has made me feel the closest to being myself again since my accident. It makes a piece of me feel alive again. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am now without parasport.
Parasport to me is about choosing freedom instead of giving up. Choosing to fight. Choosing to take a part of our lives back. The Paralympics is about feeling alive and conquering our setbacks. To keep going, and keep growing. There is no failing when you are reaching for the extraordinary.
Parasport has not only given me purpose, it’s also given me a sense of community and comradery that I’ve never felt before. When I compete internationally, I feel honoured to be amongst so many wonderful athletes with disabilities. So many heroes in my eyes.
It’s a place where we all get to showcase the strength that we found through adversity and all of our different struggles. It’s a place where we get to feel normalized and humanized despite our disabilities. It’s a place where there our diversity generates a dynamic power. It’s a place where we can inspire so many others and show people that you don’t have to stop believing in yourself or dreaming despite any setbacks.
It’s a place for the world to celebrate our disabilities with us. Where we can showcase our resilience through our different hardships. And show that the true ability is the human spirit, which no disability can take away.
There is a special link between us that runs much deeper than the surface of athletic excellence. A quiet sense of knowing that everyone around you has a survival story. That we’ve had a million reasons to give up on life and chose not to.
I feel connected when I am amongst them, like all of our journeys have connected on the world stage, where we can share these magical moments.
My dream for the Paris 2024 Paralympics is to podium for Canada in kayak or canoe. I realize that I’m the newest kid on the block… The top 2 girls in both canoe and kayak all have a decade of experience on me. But every once in awhile, someone comes along and defies all the odds stacked up against them.
I truly believe it’s never too late to make your comeback in the world, no matter what your challenges are. I cannot explain in words, the amount of chronic pain I have to fight every day to get out of bed and to train hard for my country. But I promise I will keep fighting.”
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