Canadian Brianna Hennessy pursues her Paralympic dream in two sports after suffering a life-changing injury | CBC sports

Brianna Hennessy's journey is a true testament to the power of sport.

A lifelong athlete, Hennessy was able to draw on this background to keep going after a life-changing injury. While top athletes devote their lives to their craft, she saw sport take on even greater importance in the wake of the tragedy.

The Ottawa native was 30 when she was hit by a speeding taxi from Toronto in 2014 and became quadriplegic. Growing up, Hennessy excelled at boxing, ice hockey and rugby, and developed a mental toughness that became essential after her injury.

“I grew up as a top athlete. That's all I ever knew; it was the biggest part of my identity. When I had my accident, those were the tools I pulled out of my tool belt to keep going and keep fighting,” Hennessy told CBC Sports. “That's the core of my survival story, that resilience and tenacity.”

The now 38-year-old represents Canada in two sports and continues to reach new heights in both, competing in para-canoe and wheelchair rugby. But for Hennessy, being an athlete is about so much more than medals, it goes way beyond winning or losing.

“That's my passion and my goal now, to get up every single day of my life to feel a little bit like myself. It's the only time I can feel alive or normal in any way,” Hennessy said.

Two years after her injury, Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Center introduced her to wheelchair rugby, beginning a pivotal chapter in her road to recovery. She quickly made the Ontario provincial team and was the only Canadian to play on an American roster with the Tampa Bay Generals.

Hennessy's rapid success continued on the water as well. She took up para-canoeing in 2020 when the pandemic affected team sports, a suggestion from Canadian Paralympic wheelchair rugby player Patrice Dagenais. She began working with coach Joel Hazzan at the Ottawa River Canoe Club and was soon paddling towards the Tokyo Paralympics, where she made her games debut less than two years after entering the sport.

“The only thing I knew about myself was that when I'm under high pressure and my adrenaline is spiking in sports, no matter what the level, I can rely on my competitive spirit. The only little bit of confidence I had.” “Going to Tokyo was that I could count on it,” said Hennessy.

While she didn't make the Paralympic podium, finishing less than two seconds behind, it was clear the future was bright. Hennessy's results in her World Championship debut a year later confirmed that potential in front of her home crowd.

Para canoe races are held in va'a canoe (V) and kayak (K). Hennessy won silver in the women's VL2 200m and went on to take bronze in the women's KL1 200m as the Canadians cheered her on in Dartmouth, NS

“Your performance times [leading up to worlds] “I've hinted that things could go really well, but you don't really believe it until you kind of see it,” Hazzan told CBC Sports. “So to see it happen and be like, ‘Holy crap, she just won a medal at the World Championships.' Championships' it was pretty surreal at first.”

A para canoeist cries in her boat next to two trainers as she celebrates after a race.
Hennessy is overcome with emotion after winning World Championship silver in 2022. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

While it was a special feeling to win the world championship title in hardware competition in home waters, the moment held far greater meaning for Hennessy because who was there to witness it: her late mother, Norma.

“It was incredible to be in front of a home crowd. However, the most memorable moment for me was my mother's recent death,” Hennessy said. “I always looked up to her; she was always my wonder woman.

“That was the last event she came to and as I came down the course I heard my coach in my right ear and my mother in my left.”

Hennessy will compete in the same two events at this year's World Championships, taking place this week in Duisburg, Germany. It will open with the VL2 heats on Wednesday, followed by the KL1 heats on Thursday.

“Right now I still feel like the absolute underdog. I'm competing against a ten-time world champion in a canoe.” [Great Britain's Emma Wiggs], and many of them have been paddling for over a decade. “I'm the newest on the block and I still have so much to learn,” Hennessy said.

The World Championships are also an opportunity for Hennessy to qualify for the Paris Games and get closer to her ultimate goal – the Paralympic podium.

“I have modest new goals that are much bigger than Tokyo…actually winning a medal, if not a doubles medal, for my country,” Hennessy said.

VIEW | Canadian Paralympians look ahead to Paris Games:

Canadian Paralympians look ahead to Paris 2024

With the Paralympics just over a year away, CBC Sports has invited a number of athletes to discuss their plans for Paris.

While Hennessy's strong competitive spirit is central to her identity, a symbolic gift left by her mother fueled her Paralympic aspirations even further.

“She left an Eiffel Tower for me for Christmas just to let me know she would be with me in Paris,” Hennessy said. “I will take her power to Paris in my boat.”

“Wheelchair rugby player at heart”

But Hennessy's Paralympic ambitions go beyond the water as she also hopes to reach the same level in wheelchair rugby. While the sport is mixed-gender at the Paralympic level, Hennessy was part of Canada's premier women's team at the Women's Cup in Paris earlier this year, where she won bronze.

The number of women players has risen sharply in recent years, and the prospect of a separate women's Paralympic tournament – like wheelchair basketball – is becoming more realistic.

“It would be an absolute dream of mine to be on Team Canada in either men's or women's wheelchair rugby. I dream of maybe getting there for LA.” [in 2028] because I'm really a wheelchair rugby player at heart,” said Hennessy.

Hennessy's experience in wheelchair rugby helped her adapt quickly to para-canoeing, and the two sports continue to complement each other. She said the benefits of cross-training have resulted in improvements in endurance and strength, which her trainers have also noticed.

“I think a lot of their explosiveness can be attributed to wheelchair rugby, how fast and hard they have to push on the court and how fast they accelerate on the court,” Hazzan said. “One of Bri's strengths, especially in the canoe, is how quickly she accelerates from the starting line.”

Hennessy will be looking to get back on the podium in Germany as she continues to pursue her Paralympic dream. But regardless of the outcome, her survival story has shown that she can overcome any hurdles along the way.

“I always say, if you believe in yourself, you're unstoppable,” Hennessy said.

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