In 2014, Brianna Hennessy was struck by a speeding cab driver in Toronto. She was diagnosed as a tetraplegic and still lives with chronic pain.
When the 10th anniversary of that accident rolls around, she may have a Paralympic medal hanging around her neck.
The definition of the power of sport, as well as the term ‘Fighting Irish’ could be accompanied by a picture of Hennessy.
“Being an athlete has been the biggest part of my identity my entire life,” Hennessy said earlier this year at the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s content summit in Toronto. “When I had my accident that was all torn away from me.”
Before the tragedy on King Street West, Hennessy, from Ottawa, was a multi-sport athlete raised by two athletic parents who spent more than a decade each as high level football players.
Her list of achievements includes AA hockey, national level ball hockey, women’s rugby at the provincial and national levels, Ontario Provincial boxing champion, and eight years of competitive soccer.
For two years after her accident, Hennessy struggled with processing how her life changed in a New York minute. But as was the case before 2014, the solution to recovery was on the playing field. And with that athletic structure still prevalent in her genes and in her veins, Hennessy was swift and fast in mastering Para sports.
“When I did start my wheelchair rugby (her first Para sport), that's why I get so choked up about it, it's the only time that I felt alive again,” said Hennessy, also successful off the water and court as an underwriting manager with the Business Development Bank of Canada.
“I had a part of myself back again. And I regretted waiting those two and a half years as soon as I sat in the chair. That’s the biggest part for me of Para sport, is just feeling like I have a reason to be again.”
It was national team wheelchair rugby player Patrice Dagenais, also from the Ottawa area, that directed Hennessy towards Para canoe as a training option during the pandemic. It quickly became her primary sport although Hennessy still plays wheelchair rugby in a U.S. league and was part of the first women’s national team which played a tournament last winter in France.
“COVID hit and all the team sports stopped and so the Tokyo Paralympics got pushed a year ahead,” she recalled. ‘’I've never done any paddle sports. I've never done anything on the water. And I said, ‘okay, I'll give it a try’. So I went down to the Ottawa River Canoe Club, and I showed up on (coach) Joel Hazzan's doorstep. And I said, I want to give this a try. And we hit it off right away because I'm a straight shooter. So is he.”
Hennessy’s natural athletic ability once again kicked into high gear.
“We went out for a couple of paddles and then we had a discussion and he said, ‘what are your goals?’ And I said, ‘well, I'd love to go to the Paralympics. I'd love to go to Tokyo.’ And he kind of just chuckled under his breath and said, ‘I don't do miracles’. And so we said, okay, well we can start the process and maybe we can get to Paris (2024 Games).”
It didn’t take that long. By the summer of 2021, she was on her first Paralympic Games team.
At the Tokyo Games, Hennessy made an impressive Paralympic debut with fifth and eighth place finishes, and a year later she was on the podium at the world championships in Dartmouth, N.S. She took silver in the VL2 (outrigger canoe) and bronze in the KL2 (kayak) 200-metre races.
This week Hennessy is chasing more medals and Paralympic Games quota spots at the 2023 World Championships in Duisburg, Germany. It will be a strong indicator of how she stacks up going into Paris 2024.
The 38-year-old Hennessy is about more than results. She is branching out beyond the competitive sphere and has become a bona fide trailblazer.
“When I started this, I thought I would go out and inspire other people with disabilities,” she said. “But somehow I’m told I’m inspiring able bodied people too.
“Where I train there’s always summer camps and every Friday, they do a Girls Talk.
“What’s really neat is they are watching someone who is a woman, in a chair, and realizing they can be strong too.”