By Braydon Holmyard
Canadian Paralympic Media Consortium
RIO DE JANEIRO – Para-canoeist Erica Scarff always had natural athletic ability and was a competitive gymnast by the age of seven, until her world changed forever at age 12.
At 12, Scarff lost her right leg to a rare form of bone cancer. Her experience in athletics was a key tool in the healing process, but it took some time before the 20-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. found the sport that was right for her.
“When she was no longer able to compete in gymnastics, she dabbled a bit to find the sport that she liked,” her mother Carmela Scarff said from the front row of Lagoa Stadium, minutes before Scarff competed in the KL3 200-metre finals. “She tried swimming, she didn’t like that so much. She tried cycling and the hills were a little difficult for her. She tried alpine skiing, and when she dabbled with those few I wondered, will she find something?”
In 2013, Scarff found what she was looking for.
“The first time she sat in a boat, she knew right away that it was for her,” her mother said. “She felt such a freedom that she never felt in any other sport.”
Scarff was introduced to paddling by her current coach Mari Ellery, who works out of Balmy Beach Canoe Club in Toronto. Since getting out on the water three years ago, Scarff has been all in.
Whether it’s taking time after practice to help coach other para-athletes, or visiting different canoe clubs in Toronto to talk to young girls in the sport, Scarff is fully invested in contributing to the growth of para-canoe. With it debuting in the Paralympic Games in Rio this year, she came in at just the right time.
In the finals of the KL3 200-metre race, Scarff finished in seventh place. She was disappointed, but at the same time believes that her time will come.
“It all happened so fast,” Scarff said after her race. “I guess I did have a good start, even yesterday I had my best start ever, but in that second half I just seem to fall behind. Hopefully over the next few years I’ll work on maintaining my speed throughout the race.”
Ellery believes that the young paddler, in just her fourth international competition, is a star in the making.
“She’s going to be the face of the game,” said Ellery. “I don’t care if it’s in kayaking or what sport, it’s for team Canada. She’s so young, she works hard, she’s articulate. I think she can advocate for parasports and para rights and she wants to develop the sport.”
After a long pause, crying over the phone, Ellery thought of all the work her star pupil had done to make it to Rio.
“I want her to know, I am so proud of her.”