HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Two years ago this month, Brianna Hennessy was introduced to her first water sport. She went to the Ottawa River Canoe Club, met coach Joel Hazzan, was handed a paddle and away they went.
At age 35, she approached paracanoe with equal amounts of trepidation and excitement, after many years as a talented, on-land, able-bodied athlete in women’s AA hockey ranks, provincial rugby and amateur boxing, where she became an Ontario champion.
“I’d never done a water sport in my life,” Hennessy told the Ottawa Sports Pages, shortly after starting paracanoe (VL1 classification) and parakayak (KL1). “So, I was completely out of my element, but I’m also the type of person that’s always looking for new challenges and ways to regain my purpose in life, since my accident.
“Sports to me is the closest thing to home and is my sense of freedom and independence.”
Hennessy celebrated her freedom and independence in sports to the highest degree on Friday as she shocked herself by winning a silver medal at the 2022 Canoe and Paracanoe World Senior Sprint Championships in Dartmouth, N.S.
A split second after the starter released the nine athletes in the women’s paracanoe VL2 200-metre A final, Hennessy and nine-time world champion Emma Wiggs of Great Britain shot into the lead after 10 metres.
Wiggs never relinquished her slow-growing lead over Hennessy and won by a boat length in 58.44 seconds, which allowed her to flash the 10 digits on her two hands to indicate her 10th world para title.
Hennessy, who is known for her quick starts, proved she has accelerated in the past year by being stronger over the painful and final 100 metres and earned a surprise silver medal in 1:01.42. Her first world championship medal allowed her to defeat 2021 Paralympic bronze medallist Jeanette Chippington of Great Britain, who was third in 1:03.03.
“Oh, my goodness, I’m so humbled. I didn’t expect it,” an effervescent Hennessy said in a phone interview several hours after her memorable milestone moment. “I’ve worked hard all season and, honestly, I’m still in shock.
“I’ve done a lot of contact sports (in the past), but nothing is harder than hitting the wall at the 100-metre mark of that race. When you hit the lactic acid wall, it’s the pain train. But I was so focused and my energy level was consistent to the end.”
A year ago, Hennessy competed in her first Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo, where she placed fifth in the paracanoe VL1 200 metres and eighth in the parakayak KL1 200 metres.
But at a World Cup race in Poznan, Poland, this spring, Hennessy took two giant strides forward, winning her first two international medals, a silver in paracanoe and a bronze in parakayak.
“I was definitely the dark horse. I live to be the underdog and come out of the shadows,” added Hennessy, who could see her progression at the World Cup in Poznan, when she finished 0.04 seconds behind VL2 winner Susan Seipel of Australia. Seipel also won the silver medal at the 2021 Paralympics.
Hennessy’s agonizing loss to Seipel also was a victory of sorts as she trailed her Aussie rival by 1.77 seconds at the Paralympics.
“That’s a huge jump,” said Hennessy, who reflected her progress over the past year in her 61-second sprint at worlds on Friday.
“I am, honestly, so happy with my second (at the worlds). I didn’t expect it to be that close.”
There are many technical training reasons why she has improved her speed over the past year, but she also had a little bit of help from something a little off the charts.
Starting at last year’s Paralympics, Hennessy lit a candle during her competitive race period to Fujin, the Japanese god of the wind. She would ask Fujin for a left-blowing wind, since a right wind would be a disadvantage to her paddling stroke.
On Friday, the winds blew fair for all the racers, not from the left or the right, but straight on.
“My mom and aunt are here, it’s in Canada and I’m representing my country. I’m absolutely humbled, at a loss for words and my body is still shaking,” Hennessy said. “I am so honoured. After my accident, this is a dream I didn’t know was possible.”
On Nov. 11, 2014, she was struck by a speeding cab driver in downtown Toronto. Using her contact-sport instincts, she jumped onto the hood of the car, but her head hit the windshield, which broke her C1 vertebrae and cut one of the main arteries to her brain.
Initially, she was paralyzed from the neck down and diagnosed a tetraplegic. Over time, she has had some movement return to her upper body, but she has no feeling in her arms and legs.
Hennessy fought through all sorts of emotions after her accident, but her fighting Irish attitude told her to carry on and let sports again be the maestro of her life.
During the time she spent at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, she learned about wheelchair rugby through Canadian men’s co-captain Patrice Dagenais of Embrun, ON. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down sports for two years, Dagenais suggested Hennessy move outdoors and try paracanoe.
In her two years as paracanoeist and parakayaker, Hennessy has made exceptional progress from not knowing the sport to being a world silver medallist.
“She is an amazing athlete, period,” said her Ottawa River Canoe Club coach Joel Hazzan, who shouted his encouragement from the finish line dock as he watched the “super nerve-racking and super exciting” race unfold.
“Any sport she picked, she was successful at. I was handed an amazing athlete. She was fit and strong. All the pieces were there. I taught her to paddle and she picked it up quickly, within the first month. We had some fun time trials and I said: ‘Oh, this girl has got something.’”
Hazzan could see her progress throughout the past year by looking at her times, which told him she could be a medal candidate entering the worlds.
“She was fast in practices. The stopwatch doesn’t lie,” he said.
“I was surprised she was out with the English girl (Wiggs) as she has been the champ for so long. But Brianna was right there. It was a bit of a surprise she was right there, but her hard work was paying off.
“The strategy was to hold on strong over the last 100 metres. We know she is a rocket off the line. The last 1½ to two months we’ve worked on holding her stroke rate for the last 100 metres.”
On Saturday, Hennessy will return to lane two for the parakayak KL1 200-metre A final.
“I’m hoping it’s a Battle for Bronze,” predicted Hennessy, who was third in her earlier heat and advanced directly to the A final. “I’ll see if I can have another Rocky Balboa moment. I was eighth in Tokyo (Paralympics) and if I can get fourth that will be a huge jump.”
Rideau paddlers reach A finals
In other action at the ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships, the Canadian women’s K4 500-metre crew boat, which includes Rideau Canoe Club’s Natalie Davison-James and Toshka Besharah-Hrebacka, redeemed itself after an indifferent seventh-place result in its opening heat and qualified for Saturday’s A final.
Andréanne Langlois of Club de Canoe-Kayak de Vitesse de Trois-Rivières, Davison-James, Riley Melanson of Cheema Aquatic Club and Besharah-Hrebacka finished third in their semifinal final in 1:38.42. They were less than a second behind Mexico, 1:37.84, and Great Britain, 1:38.21.
“Our semifinal went a lot better,” Davison-James said in a phone interview. “The (Wednesday heat) wasn’t our best. Being here (racing) in Canada is a new experience for the four of us and we didn’t have a plan on how that would feel. But we made a plan and regrouped.
“We were a bit more competitive (Friday) and we definitely found our edge.”
Davison is competing in her fifth senior world championships, but the women’s K4 500 metres will only be her second A final.
“It will be a bit different (racing in the outside lane nine),” she added. “We’re not in the mid pack, but that’s also beneficial because we can stay in our zone and not worry about the other crews. It’s easier to focus.”
The Canadian K4 500-metre crew also will be uplifted by the thousands of cheering Canadian supporters lining the course.
Langlois and Besharah-Hrebacka also qualified for two other A finals on Saturday. They were runners-up to Great Britain by only 0.08 seconds in their women’s K2 500-metre semifinal in 1:49.73. The Canadian pair also will race the K2 200-metre A final.
Rideau’s Gabriel Ferron-Bouius finished third in the men’s parakayak KL3 200-metre sprint B final in 47.06 and placed 12th overall. American John Wallace won the secondary final in 46.51.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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