Female Para athletes fired up to continue sport journey after Connection 2021

Canadian Paralympic Committee

June 24, 2021

Special event aimed to bring more women into Para sport opportunities

Para athlete panel from Connection 2021 featuring (clockwise from left) Karolina Wisniewska, Michelle Salt, Marissa Papaconstantinou, Christine Selinger, Sandrine Hamel and Kirsten Sharp

At the end of Connection 2021, Christa Akins was more ready than ever to continue her sport journey. 

“It completely fired me up.” 

Akins was one of 25 participants in Connection 2021, a unique and innovative event organized by the Canadian Paralympic Committee specifically for women. Held virtually June 5 and 6, the objective was to introduce more women to Para sport information and provide the tools and resources to get involved or stay active in sport. 

Akins is one person who came to the weekend with previous Para sport experience. In 2019, Akins attended the CPC’s Paralympian Search in Kelowna. She had been a wheelchair user for two years at that point, after being hit by a car while cycling.   

Active with a driven personality, Akins found a sport in Para rowing, and trains regularly both on the water and in the gym. But at Connection 2021, she loved learning more about the different sports that are available for different disabilities.  

“I really liked how the coaches put out the personalities that are good for sports, so if you like endurance, you are right for this sport. It helps you identify with a sport,” she said. “The nordic coach did a great job in saying, ‘we see deer, and we see elk, and we are in nature’. And I connected with that, and thought wow, I want to try nordic skiing for the winter.” 

Funded by the Innovation Initiative component of Sport Canada’s Sport Support program, Connection 2021 saw attendees learn about a variety of sports through presentations from Athletics Canada, Canoe/Kayak Canada, Nordiq Canada, Canada Snowboard, and Alpine Canada. They also heard from sport scientists from Canadian Sport Institute Calgary, Canadian Sport Institute Ontario and Institut national du sport du Québec, as well as sports psychologists, recreation therapists, and active and retired female Paralympians. 

When Candice Combdon saw the opportunity to attend a women-only event within Paralympic sport, she jumped at it.  

“I’m flabbergasted by the support and the representation that was at Connection 2021. As a 30-something-year-old female playing wheelchair tennis, there’s not a lot of us in the sport.”

“Being part of an entire weekend where there were female athletes and people that shared the same experience and trials and tribulations that I did, even meeting women who got into sport later than I did or as late as I did, it meant a lot. It lit a fire under me to say, you know what, this is possible.” 

Growing up as a child with a disability, Combdon didn’t see a place for her in sport. It wasn’t until she took a leap of faith and decided to attend a have-a-go session run by ParaSport Ontario in her late 20s that she discovered wheelchair tennis. 

“I’m not the person to take chances, I’m a very quiet, introverted person,” she said when discussing her decision to head out to the session to try Para sports. “But there was something that went off that said I have to try this. I tell people all the time, it’s almost like tennis chose me. I don’t do those kinds of things, and it’s the one time I took that chance, and it changed my life.”

Today she is on Team Ontario for wheelchair tennis with goals of representing Canada internationally, including one day, the Paralympics.  

Photo: Candice Combdon 

While both Akins and Combdon entered Connection 2021 with experience participating in Para sports they love, Oanh Nguyen did not. 

Just two years removed from an injury that caused the loss of her legs, Nguyen is still navigating her new reality and new abilities. For her, having an event for women only made her feel comfortable.  

“For me personally, it was a safe space where I can really talk about what is affecting me as a woman,” she said. “If it was a mixed event, I wouldn’t have been able to voice those concerns and would not have felt comfortable talking about them. I don’t think we would have been able to be as open with each other. And there’s so much space for men in sport, it’s fun to have just women there to give you advice and information.”

Active in sport prior to her injury, including martial arts, hockey, wall climbing, and boxing, it was a friend who heard about Connection 2021 and encouraged Nguyen to attend. She says she enjoyed learning more about concrete goal setting and sports she didn’t know would be open to her, like skiing. She hopes to try kayaking this summer.  

“I would like to by the end of this year have tried a new sport and pushed myself to be more active every day. It has been hard, more mentally, to get myself up and get out there, but with the way goal setting was described, I started to make smaller goals for myself. And it does work, so I’m pretty hyped about that.”

All three women look forward to spring boarding forward following their Connection 2021 experience, and hope to see similar events in the future, so it can impact more lives. 

“It has totally given me purpose, a goal, a meaning, and hopefully at the end of the day, no matter how far I get, I’m hoping to take this experience and hope to touch other people’s lives to know that nothing is impossible,” said Akins. 

“I’m hoping I can take that from this experience and instill it to people who are struggling with everyday life, with a disability or not.” 

Feature Photo: Para athlete panel from Connection 2021 featuring (clockwise from top left) Karolina Wisniewska, Michelle Salt, Marissa Papaconstantinou, Christine Selinger, Sandrine Hamel and Kirsten Sharp

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