By Dan Plouffe
When Brianna Hennessy came home from the ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup in Poland with the first two international medals of her young paddling career, the Tokyo Paralympian was of course greeted with congratulations, and also a cheeky comment from her coach: “You had to have a dramatic exit, eh?”
Ottawa River Canoe Club head coach Joel Hazzan was making fun of Hennessy for flipping out of her kayak moments after crossing the finish line to win her breakthrough bronze medal in the women’s KL1 200 metres on May 28.
Hennessy’s life preserver and rapid assistance from the rescue boat kept her safe from harm after the spill, but it did end up creating a major challenge since she had to race again about an hour later in the va’a canoe event.
“That water was freezing!” Hennessy reports in an email interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages. “It shocked my body and left it shaking. We tried to change and warm up under the hand dryers in the bathroom, which left me 17 minutes to get back out in my canoe and get it up to the line for my canoe race – muscles cold and trembling, with little warm up.”
One of the results of the 2014 incident when Hennessy was struck by a taxicab was that she has weak core muscles due to paralysis, which can make balancing in a racing boat especially challenging.
“Whenever there’s wind or wavy conditions, it really kind of puts my disabilities on display,” notes Hennessy, and the event in Poland certainly presented some rough water, with earlier sessions cancelled for able-bodied athletes as well.
“It can be quite discouraging on days where Mother Nature is not my friend,” adds Hennessy, who’s taken many a plunge into the Ottawa River since first trying paddling two years ago. “But what’s good about training on Ottawa River is that that resilience is sort of built into your game plan.
“It helps me prepare a lot better if there’s rough conditions, compared to lots of other paddlers who are just practicing on flatwater all the time. They’ll go into full panic mode when they see all these waves coming up, where I go, ‘OK, this is another Ottawa River day. I’ve done this before. It may not be pretty, but we’re gonna get it done.'”
And that’s just what Hennessy did in her second World Cup race, despite the extra hurdles imposed by her unplanned swim, plus plenty more obstacles thrown her way just to get to the start line in Poland.
Hennessy had to dodge fallen trees and downed power lines to make it to the airport after Ottawa was hit by a major storm on May 21, which caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to her property in Fallowfield village just south of Kanata.
There was a 10-hour delay in Germany during her three-leg trip, and once she at last landed in Poland, Hennessy learned that her luggage had been lost en route. The 37-year-old had a few short days of training to get accustomed to a new canoe received from Team Canada.
“It was pure chaos,” Hennessy describes. “I was left with no other choice but to pull deeply from my Irish roots on this one, and rely on that Hennessy horseshoe hiding in my nether regions – I’m lucky that it didn’t go off in the medal detectors during international travel on my way there!”
Prior to the season, the Tokyo Paralympics fifth-place finisher said her goal this year would be to narrow the gap between herself and the world’s best paddlers.
She couldn’t have possibly made the gap any closer in her women’s VL2 200-metre World Cup race. Hennessy and Susan Seipel crossed the finish line in a virtual dead-heat, with the Australian paddler registering a time of 1:01.54 – 0.04 seconds ahead of Hennessy in second place.
Seipel has owned a stranglehold on the silver medal position in international racing in recent years, with the rest of the field essentially battling for third place. (Great Britain’s Emma Wiggs, who won the Paralympic final by over four seconds, did not enter the World Cup, though she does plan to compete come the Aug. 3-7 World Championships in Dartmouth, N.S.)
Hennessy was 1.77 seconds behind Seipel and 1.1 seconds away from bronze in Tokyo, so “we are absolutely closing the gap,” underlines Hennessy, who held the lead in the World Cup race until the final stroke. “My coach (Hazzan) believes we can beat (Seipel) at world champs in Canada on home turf in Halifax come August.”
Hennessy adds that she was “completely taken aback” to have advanced so far from the end of last season to the start of this one.
“It’s very hard to quantify all the hard work my team and I are doing behind the scenes, at the Ottawa River Canoe Club,” she highlights. “I was most excited to see if I had improved, and if so by how much.”
Canoe-Kayak Canada’s team leader for the event, Ian Mortimer of Ottawa, helped put the accomplishment in perspective with a wise crack after the podium ceremony.
“He said, ‘Do you hear that?’ And I looked up, trying to listen, and replied ‘What is it?'” Hennessy recounts. “He said, ‘The most amazing sound in the world: two medals around your neck clinking together.’
“My cheeks turned rosy red as it humbled me in that instant, as I walked right into his trap.”
So how will Hennessy celebrate her milestone medals? She’s going to Vegas of course, though not for quite the ruckus on the strip you might expect…
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