By Mark Colley
Brianna Hennessy did not want to be in the water.
Struggling through the churning expanse of the Maty-ér National Kayak and Rowing Olympic Centre in Szeged, Hungary, with strong winds blasting against her left side, Hennessy had much on her mind.
First and foremost was finishing the women’s 200 metre final without falling out of her kayak. Second was wrestling with the emotions churning through her mind on Sunday, May 14 — Mother’s Day.
Hennessy’s mother Norma passed away in January after battling chronic illness and debilitating migraines for 20 years. At the ICF Sprint and Paracanoe World Cup, Hennessy competed in an international event without her for the first time.
Her kayak final on Mother’s Day — a race she only participated in because it served as a classification race — was the most difficult race she had ever paddled. She wore a necklace with Norma’s ashes as she stayed afloat in the conditions.
“[It was] forcing me to face the fact that I couldn’t lean on my mom in those very important moments in my life, when she has always given me strength,” Hennessy says. “Inside was a very messy place that day.”
Hennessy finished fifth of six racers, a result she could accept thanks to her still-ailing AC shoulder joint, which she hurt in the winter.
Two days earlier, Hennessy earned a silver medal in the VL2 200 metres to match her result from last year’s world championships.
The 38-year-old Ottawa River Canoe Club athlete is now gearing up for the world championships in late August, when she hopes to qualify for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. It would be her second Paralympics after competing in Tokyo.
But as the chaotic flurry of qualifications and training kicks into high gear and the pressure of the world’s biggest sporting event looms a year away, Hennessy is grappling with the loss of her mother.
Hennessy was close with Norma. After Hennessy was struck by a cab driver in Toronto in 2014, she became a tetraplegic and has lived with chronic pain since. She bonded with her mother and brother, who has terrible migraines, through it.
“It’s invisible to everyone else,” she notes. “It’s always hard because no one ever seems to get it. They see a smile on your face. They don’t seem to understand that your pain is still 10 out of 10 underneath the surface.”
On what would have been her mother’s birthday, May 18, Hennessy started work on a tattoo. In it, Wonder Woman is poised, ready to attack, with a sword above her head. She sports golden armour, which she wore for her biggest battles.
“She’s my superhero. She’s my Wonder Woman,” Hennessy indicates. “Even though her armour was worn down over those 20 years [of chronic illness], she still kept bringing it on … and still taking it on every day with her excalibur sword high over her head, ready to fight.”
In Norma’s spirit, Hennessy continues to fight. Less than three years since she started paddling, she’s become one of the top in the world, just seconds off gold in both canoe and kayak. It’s a journey that has taken her around the world, and then some — and one that continues to twist and turn with every season.
“I feel almost like paddling is home now, and before I just felt like I was sort of on the outskirts,” reflects Hennessy, who fell in love with wheelchair rugby as her first parasport passion, and got to join Canada’s first women’s team to compete in an international event in March.
After finishing just over one second away from the podium in her Paralympic debut less than a year after taking up paddling, Hennessy has her sights on narrowing the gap to the top before the Paris Games.
She finished 2.56 seconds back of Great Britain’s 10-time world champion Emma Wiggs in the VL2 at the World Cup, compared to 2.98 at last year’s worlds in Halifax. Hennessy was .55 ahead of third place at the World Cup and 2.46 clear of fourth place.
“I still feel like I’m a dark horse in this, because I still am one of the newest paddlers,” signals the former boxing, hockey and rugby player. “They have a lot of experience on me, and that’s something I can’t really ever catch up to.
“But I’m hoping that my hard work and my tenacity … will kind of give me that extra edge.”
Eventually, Hennessy will have to choose to prioritize either canoe or kayak over the next year. For now, though, it’s “full steam ahead in both boats.”
She’s headed to a two-week staging camp in France at the same pre-Paralympics location Canada will visit next year, then Germany for the World Championships in August. After that, she’ll travel back to France for the season’s final World Cup, held at the paddling venue for the 2024 Paralympics.
Through it all, Hennessy will be carrying her mother with her. Hennessy has the same contagious, vivacious laugh as her mother did.
“I’ve tried to let her live through me now,” Hennessy underlines.
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