TORONTO – Brianna Hennessy gets a reminder before each international event how her journey to become a Paralympian is inspiring other girls and women, abled or disabled, of the level of excellence they can achieve.
“My biggest fan is my coach’s daughter,” said Hennessy, a four-time world championships medallist in Para canoe and a top contender for Paris 2024.
“She’s 10 years old and her name is Olivia. She makes me a poster before I go to all my international events. Her teacher told me she talks to all the kids just about what I do and how amazing I am.”
‘’It melts my heart that the next generation is able to see that. I’m blown away.”
Hennessy was injured in 2014 when she was struck by a speeding cab driver in Toronto. She was diagnosed as a tetraplegic. She is also a high-level wheelchair rugby player and plays in the top men’s league in the U.S. She was a member of Canada’s first ever women’s wheelchair rugby team that placed third at a World Cup in Paris earlier this year.
“At the Ottawa River Canoe Club all summer when I’m training there’s kid’s camps,” she said. “Every Friday I do a girls talk. We bring all the girls that are participating, and they can ask whatever questions they want.
“What’s really neat about it is that they are watching someone that is a woman and that is in a chair, and that they’re not only getting normalized and desensitized by that, but they are realizing that they can be strong too.”
Danielle Ellis is a long-time member of the Canadian women’s sitting volleyball team. She has seen it rise from a fledging outfit to winning the silver medal at the world championships last year. She lost a leg to cancer as a newborn.
“For me, the message I’m giving is that you can do anything you want to do. I want to get more women, more disabled athletes, into any sport they can,” she said.
‘’I just want every kid and disabled person to know that they can really reach for the stars. There’s no ceiling. You can get to wherever you need or want to go with hard work and dedication.”
Like Hennessy, Tara Llanes was injured in an accident. She was a professional mountain biker and crashed at an event in Colorado in 2007. She was left paralyzed but never gave up her dreams to excel in sports. She became a national champion wheelchair tennis player and in 2021 at age 44 made her Paralympic Games debut with the women’s wheelchair basketball team.
‘’Try every sport,” said Llanes, when asked how girls and women can find their passion on the playing field. ‘’For me it took a handful of sports to figure out what I really liked and what I wanted. I tried hand cycling – I hated it. I loved wheelchair tennis, but it wasn’t quite the dynamic I was looking for. It takes a few tries.”
Another sitting volleyball national team veteran Heidi Peters is thankful her coach Nicole Ban saw her potential in the sport but early on she admits it wasn’t easy.
‘’I really like the quote ‘we can do hard things’ by Glennon Doyle,” she said. ‘’I like that’s it a ‘we’ – that collective aspect; I play a team sport and I really enjoy that. But it’s pretty simple and to the point, yes it’s hard, but we can do it.”
“I’m glad somebody else saw potential in me and used her tools to get it out of me and develop me into a leader. I just want young girls, young people with a disability, really anybody, to know you’re capable of so much.”