This blog is a part of a series created in collaboration with SIRC and the Paralympic Athlete Transfer Task Force, spotlighting the opportunities and challenges of Para athlete transfer and multi-sport participation.
“Para sport, for me, it’s my purpose. It’s the only time I feel alive,” says Brianna Hennessy, Tokyo Paralympian.
Hennessy was struck by a speeding motor vehicle in 2014. At the time of her accident, she didn’t know much about Para sport, let alone there were contact Para sports like the ones she had enjoyed prior to her accident. Hennessy had been a provincial amateur boxing champion, played rugby at the provincial and national levels, and was a gold medalist in hockey at the Ontario Games.
Diagnosed tetraplegic, Hennessy regained some mobility back into her upper body, but no sensation.
“The first couple of years after my accident, I compared myself to what I had done before and I was in a pretty dark place, which is unfortunately quite common,” Hennessy says. “I couldn’t put my pride aside. I was kind of allergic to the idea of doing a sport with an accessibility device.”
As a successful multi-sport athlete before her injury, Hennessy struggled with the transition to Para sport—at first. But it was her multi-sport background that would eventually contribute to her success in not just one, but two, Para sports.
It all started when she decided to check out an Ottawa Stingers wheelchair rugby practice. The team is coached by Patrice Dagenais, who also serves as co-captain of Team Canada for wheelchair rugby.
“I could tell she really missed playing,” Dagenais says of his first time meeting Hennessy, “I think it was just really good for her to get back on the court and also meet other people that have similar challenges and disabilities.”
“I got into a chair and got to play essentially adult bumper cars. I was hooked,” Hennessy says with a laugh.
Now, Hennessy describes Para sport as vital to her ongoing recovery, both in terms of physical activity and reintegration into a sporting community.
Given her intensely competitive nature and athletic background, it was perhaps not a surprise that Hennessy took to wheelchair rugby with a vengeance, soon becoming the only woman to be imported onto a Division I team within the league governed by the United States Wheelchair Rugby Association. This upcoming season will be Hennessy’s third with the Tampa Generals.
“It’s mostly a men’s league. There’s only about 4% of women who play the sport,” Hennessy explains. “Every US team gets one international import from a different country. I’m really proud to be the only woman that’s being imported.”
But, as for so many of us, from recreational to elite athletes, organized sport ground to a halt for Hennessy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and wheelchair rugby practices were put on hold.
While waiting to return to the gym, Hennessy got an email from Dagenais that said: “Hey! Do you want to try Para canoe and kayak?”
Hennessy was itching to stay active and loves a good challenge, so she immediately said, “Why not?” Little did she know that casual email would change her life.
“I don’t mind if people are laughing with me or at me,” she says with a chuckle. “So, even though I had never done a paddle sport in my life, I showed up on the doorstep of the Ottawa River Canoe Club.”
Coach Joel Hazzan answered the door, at which point Hennessy told him: “Listen, I don’t even know if I can swim, but I’m ready to go!” So, they headed out on the water.
Hazzan was impressed at Hennessy’s athleticism in that first session, and upon returning to land, asked her about her goals. Hennessy responded that she thought she might like to go to the Paralympics.
Hazzan’s response: “Tokyo? I don’t do miracles!”
At that point, qualifications were a mere six months away, and this was Hennessy’s first time picking up a paddle. She had less than a year to master a sport she had no background in.
But the two got to work, and Hazzan was thrilled to be proved wrong. Not only did Hennessy qualify for the Games, but she was also the only Canadian to qualify in both Para canoe and kayak. She finished 5th and 8th respectively at the Paralympics in her brand-new sport.
Hazzan describes Hennessy as the epitome of the athlete development-first, specialization-second model.
“Her past athletic experiences, both in wheelchair rugby and the sports she played before her accident helped her take to Para canoe and kayak so quickly,” Hazzan says.
Hennessy says her competitive spirit and coolness under pressure were the skills that transferred over from her previous sport experiences to paddling.
“Everything was new to me,” she says. “But when I got to the international level, I could rely on my previous experience of being under pressure. I do well under pressure. No matter how nervous I am or if I’m shaking and not sleeping the night before, it’s just like before my boxing fights. I know I can rely on my adrenaline and focus and that I’ll be able to bring everything together in the moment.”
She proceeded to medal at both the World Cup in Poland and the World Championship on Canadian waters in Halifax this summer, moving up on the podium to a silver in Para canoe and bronze in Para kayak.
And now in the offseason, if she can even call it that now, Hennessy is headed back to wheelchair rugby, and will balance the training for both sports.
Hazzan says that helping Hennessy navigate a double sporting load has required a bit of a learning curve but is worth it.
“I think way too often as coaches we say, ‘Oh no, you need to give up that other sport.’ We don’t take the time to appreciate what one sport can give back to another sport,” he explains.
Dagenais agrees with Hazzan. His coaching philosophy is to support all the athletes he works with in their path to improvement—and that often means encouraging them to practice different sports, as it helps develop different skills and supports athletes’ physical and mental health.
Other athletes who have undergone transfer experiences agree that collaborative coaching makes all the difference.
“Of course we miss Brianna at some of our competitions and practices,” Dagenais says, “but her paddling training has really improved her rugby game. She’s in great shape physically and mentally. When she does come back to practice, she’s pretty much unstoppable.”
Hennessy sees her new sport and her old one as inherently compatible. Wheelchair rugby is all about pushing a chair, while Para canoe and kayak are all about pulling a paddle. The combination leaves her stronger overall.
Para sport is a place where Hennessy says she feels part of something and accepted. Her advice to athletes considering trying a new sport, and to individuals who might be trying Para sport for the first time, is to put pride aside.
“The only thing I regret is waiting so long to get started.”