By Emma Zhao
Brianna Hennessy still remembers the way her mother looked after playing rugby when she was younger. She would be covered in grass and scrapes with a big smile on her face. And Hennessy thought that was beautiful.
After an incredibly difficult year following her mother Norma’s death, Hennessy decided to fully channel her mom’s vivacious and inspiring energy.
The Tokyo Paralympic paddler was one of the speakers at the Sports Day The Girls’ Way event held last Tuesday by the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group Foundation at TD Place.
There, Hennessy discussed her wide-ranging career in sport alongside fellow panellists Elisa de Santis, a flag football ambassador, two-time Pan Am Games boxing champion Mandy Bujold and Team Canada basketball coach Fabienne Blizzard.
Below the stage, a crowd of around 700 girls from 16 different schools across Ottawa soaked in their inspiring words while on break from trying four non-traditional sports – rugby, boxing, lacrosse and football.
Hennessy was a provincial/national champion in two of the four sports – boxing and rugby – before she was struck by a taxicab in 2014 and became tetraplegic. She’s now a member of the Canadian women’s wheelchair rugby team and reached the Paralympics less than a year after taking up canoe-kayak. The Ottawa River Canoe Club athlete won World Championships silver and bronze medals on home water last summer in Halifax – with her mom watching for the last time before she passed away in January.
Hennessy wanted to participate in the Sports Day event to inspire the next generation of athletes the way her mother inspired her.
“It’s paying it forward,” she explains. “I always say that if I can just light the candle in the hearts of five girls, then I think I’ve done something right in my life.”
Exposure and visibility crucial to girls’ sport participation, event leaders say
On top of the live panel, students were encouraged to be active. Participants were able to learn the basics of sports with help from Bujold for boxing, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees women’s lacrosse team, the Eastern Ontario Rugby Union, Ottawa Women’s Football and the Ottawa Redblacks cheer team, which led a warm-up.
The four sports were chosen specifically to help expose girls to sports they might not have experienced before, signals OSEG Foundation executive director Janice Barresi.
“To be able to have role models leading sports that they normally wouldn’t try elsewhere is really important,” highlights Barresi, whose organization ran the event alongside Fast & Female and the City of Ottawa. “The hope is that they will find something that sparks their interest.”
Also helping to fuel the fire was keynote speaker Jamie Lee Rattray, who brought along the biggest prize in sport – her Beijing 2022 Olympic women’s hockey gold medal.
“Growing up playing sports taught me a lot of lessons in terms of teamwork and how to be disciplined – it really shaped me as a human being,” Rattray said in an Instagram video clip for Fast and Female. “The longer we can keep girls in sport, the better, and keeping people active is also very important, so having a day like this and having a lot of young females here doing a lot of different activities and meeting new people, I think is very important.”
Having Olympians and Paralympians on hand to serve as inspiring figures for young females was a weapon employed to combat the reality that Canadian girls are much less likely to participate in sport than their male counterparts.
The 2020 Rally Report showed that only 38% of girls aged 16-18 took part in sports (compared to 56% of boys the same age) and that one in three females dropped out of sport as teenagers compared to one in 10 males.
These statistics greatly informed many of the programs that the OSEG Foundation provides to tackle these gender barriers, says Barresi.
Speakers like Blizzard jumped at the opportunity to represent what it takes to be a successful female athlete. Blizzard is the head coach and co-founder of Capital Courts Academy, one of Ontario and Canada’s top high school women’s basketball programs.
She says it’s not only important for people to recognize and act on the discrimination that female athletes face but also to build platforms where leaders can support young athletes to start tackling these issues.
“Women have to learn to support each other,” indicates Blizzard. “If we can start with girls and they can start supporting each other, I think that’s going to create the networking that we’re looking for.”
Blizzard hopes that her participation in the event can help some young girls see and recognize the strength that female athletes have.
Hennessy adds that as a parasport athlete, being a role model is especially important.
“Sometimes with people with disabilities, we spend most of our lives having the disabilities pointed out to us in the real world,” notes the 39-year-old. “But … I think we have a responsibility to use that platform to celebrate our abilities instead of our disabilities.”
Hennessy uses her platform as an opportunity to discuss the importance of sports in building character. She says these discussions are especially relevant during a time when every facet of society, from its political to economic messaging, discourages women from engaging in more traditionally masculine fields.
“A girl’s confidence level should always be higher than the heels that they wear,” she underlines. “Get rid of the superficial stuff and get down to the grit and grind.”
Hennessy says that her background as a competitive athlete helped prepare her for the unexpected and gave her the resilience required to adapt to her life-altering injury.
“You’re tested in so many ways at such a young age that you may be tested with … things like my accident later on in my life,” details the past provincial/national hockey and ball hockey champion. “For me, having that foundation of strength, I was able to pull from that.”
Grassroots events can help fuel future equity in sports world, speakers say
Charities and non-profits like the OSEG Foundation can act as a crucial resource in the Ottawa sports community to address barriers people might face when trying to play sports, Barresi highlights.
“We want to ensure that every child has the same opportunity to learn, develop and grow through sports,” she notes. “Organizations like ours are critically important to ensure those kids who can’t afford to participate still have an equal opportunity to thrive.”
While issues such as pay gaps for women in sports need to be tackled globally, Blizzard says she is particularly passionate about fostering resources at the community level to build from the ground up.
“To be able to see more of these events and more of these young ladies connecting and hopefully seeing more of these generations creating more of these events … is so important,” outlines the recent Team Canada silver medallist at the FIBA Americas U16 Women’s Championship. “It’s like if I keep planting more seeds, I’m gonna get more support through our support network.”
Hennessy found that by building a group of people who serve as her support system, she was able to overcome adversities to become the successful athlete she is.
“Those people are who you’ll take forever with you,” she underlines.
Her mother’s strength, not only as an athlete but as a person, has also left an indelible mark on the way Hennessy sees herself as a role model. She recalls how her mother was always capable of keeping the boys in her family in check.
Now, Hennessy hopes that she can be a vital part of her community, just as her mother was in her journey.
“I think that’s how I keep my love for her alive, is just to keep that human spirit,” she explains. “It’s showing that strength she showed me and passing it on.”
This article is part of the Ottawa Sports Pages’ Inclusion in Sport series. Read more about local sport inclusion initiatives at: OttawaSportsPages.ca/Ottawa-Sports-Pages-Inclusion-In-Sport-Series/.
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.