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Sunday, November 22, 2020

If there's a wheel, there's a way!

Brianna Hennessy

Duel Ontario Provincial Para-Athlete 

Wheelchair Rugby & Para-Kayaking



This week we want to feature an amazing woman, athlete and person. Have a read below to hear Brianna’s incredible story and get inspired by her words and actions. 

*Note: This blog was written by Brianna Hennessy


I grew up on the side of a football field, as I watched both of my parents play at the National level for over a decade. I was taught at a very young age what it was like to be a supportive teammate in our family unit. We depended on one another and each one of us had just as much of an important role as the next.


With the inspiration of my parents drive, accomplishments and unconditional support and sacrifices, I was able to spend most of my life as an elite athlete in multiple sports - 

AA Women’s Ice Hockey, Ball Hockey at the National level, Ontario Amateur Provincial Boxing Champion, as well as Rugby for the Ontario, Quebec and Canadian Rugby team.


Sport teaches us wonderful things such as hard work ethic, perseverance, believing and trusting in yourself and others, patience, self-respect, and mental strength. We always hear that clich√© phrase, that ‘practice makes perfect’, but more importantly ‘practice’ allows us to make mistakes. It teaches us that mistakes can be learning opportunities to push through our own boundaries. Sports teach us to look for new perspectives to be able to quickly adapt and prepare ourselves ahead of time - to challenge our mental strength. Above all, sports have taught me resilience. 


Until November 2014. 

Something happened to me that I could never predict or prepare for. I was in Toronto for a work conference. I had a financial position as an Underwriting Manager in the Crown Corporation of the Government with BDC (Business Development of Canada). I was a pedestrian crossing the street and I was struck by a speeding cab driver. This incident broke my neck and severed one of the main arteries to my brain. I woke up in the hospital and couldn’t move my body from my neck down. It was my worst nightmare or fear that had come true, other than being blind. The only thing that I could feel were my tears as they rolled down my face as I went into a complete state of panic. Why me? Why now? This can’t be real! When would I wake up? 

I remember telling my father that I didn’t want to live anymore and to just pull the plug. I was ready to say ‘Goodbye’. I still remember him bursting into tears and hugging me, saying don’t you give up on me! Don’t you dare give up on me!!! 

But, I would not be a burden on my family. All I could think about is that I could no longer be the strong independent woman that I once was. A women that played contact male dominating sports - to demonstrate to myself and other young women that you can do anything that you set your mind to. I felt like I had forever lost my identity that day. What would be my purpose? What was the point? For the first time in my life, I was ready to quit. I was terrified. I was helpless. I was stuck. I felt invisible. As I laid there in the hospital, minutes felt like hours, hours felt like weeks and weeks felt like years. I felt completely lost for the first time in my life. 


I’m not sure who originally said this saying, but it reads: “We don’t know how strong we are until being strong is the only choice we have.”

Something about it resonated with me, so I had my family write this on my hospital room board. This is what started the whole battle between my mental and physical being. I realized in that moment that there was a detrimental choice I had to make. 

I vividly remember hearing my granny’s voice all of a sudden surround me. She was the strongest person I had ever known. She was told she had 2 months to live when the doctors discovered she had Leukaemia. She lived for 2 years after that. When she was done fighting, she brought her 7 children into the hospital room one night and said her goodbyes, made her peace and told them all she was letting go and was ready to do so. That night she passed away. 

That reminded me of the power of our minds. Our mental strength is the ultimate power over our bodies- mind over matter. 


I laid there trying to make sense of it all. I could forever use these new disabilities as a crutch, or I could change my perspective - what would granny do? Could I learn from this? Could I adapt? Could I fight this? My accident didn’t take away my support around me, it didn’t take away me believing in myself, my passionate heart or the strength I had built in my character. I was the only one underestimating myself!! It was time to celebrate life! It was time to celebrate the small accomplishments. It was time to round up what strengths I did have and the unconditional love I had around me of family and friends. 


Once I was finally transferred to the Ottawa Rehabilitation centre from the neurological unit, I was told about a team of disabled athletes that would essentially strike one another at full speed in these battle chairs as a wheelchair sport called Murderball (now known as Wheelchair Rugby). I was quite intrigued. I remember going down to watch them practice at night. It was unbelievable! I was so impressed. I had no idea there were contact sports for people with disabilities! Maybe I could do this! 



So I went out for the first time to practice with the Ottawa Stingers team, lead and coached by team captain and Paralympian Patrice Dagenais. I couldn’t believe how welcoming they all were. But, what really stole my heart that day, was that for those couple of hours of practice, they were all just human. They were all just seeing one another as people first, friends second and last but not least as family. It was beautiful! Their positive energy was captivating. They weren’t held back by their disabilities - in fact, they had found ways to overcome them. They had built back up their confidence in ways I could never have imagined was possible. They don’t know this, but my new brothers had saved me that day. I had found a new family - one that understood me. A family where I felt normal again. A family of fighters and survivors against ALL odds, just like me.

I remember the very first time I strapped up into one of those ‘bumper car’ chairs. It was the first thing and only thing that finally filled my heart with a burning fire and desire, once again. I was the only female on the team when I started a few years ago. In fact, only 4% of women play in this male dominating co-ed sport across the world. 


From there, I hit the ground running (lol figure of speech of course - have to have a sense of humour to make it in this life). Before I knew it, the time had flown by, and I was honoured to play at the Ontario Provincial level, and then participate in a couple Wheelchair Rugby Nationals. 


My biggest accomplishment was last season, where I was the only female wheelchair rugby athlete in Canada, to be imported on a USA team - the Tampa Bay Generals (Div 1). At the end of the season, our team locked in the 4th seating position in the whole country. In addition, there was the first all Women’s team called ‘the Wonder Women’- made up of some of the top female WCR athletes across North America. We played in an 8-team tournament in Chicago and placed 3rd. This was the first time an all women’s team had EVER placed in the co-ed (mostly Men) league, in the history of the sport. I cannot thank the ON-Para Sports, Wheelchair Rugby Canada & USQRA organizations enough, for making me feel like part of their family, for accepting me for who I am, and for all the strength that they have given back to me. I will never forget how their belief in me gave me the foundation to inspire myself to build my resilience back up - that I had thought I’d forever lost. My hope is that I can also inspire others to take the same chance with these wonderful organizations that I have. You will be surprised how much your smile lights up on your face! https://wheelchairrugby.ca 



Shortly after last season traumatically ended with the Nationals in both Canada and the USA being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were all left in shock. You see para-sports isn’t just a part of our lives, it’s a way of life. It’s a closely knit community. It’s a new family, where we can feel proud to be ourselves and never feel judged for how we are different than what we used to be. It is our escape to feel alive again. It is a way to remind ourselves how capable we still are! It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, when our nerve pain or body pains are so terrible. When I play wheelchair rugby, it’s the ONLY time in my life that I don’t feel pain. During a rugby game, you are sharing the court with people that have found a light in all the darkness. There is a certain silent respect that is shared amongst us. An unspoken understanding, that we have all been through hell and made it back against all odds. We are all miracles in our own way. A nod from one athlete to the next that says, 1000 other people that have gone through the same thing as us are no longer with us today. A nod of personal pride to say, we are here to take our lives back. We are here to leave all the disabilities on the sidelines, and showcase our abilities on the court for just these next couple of hours! 


Everyone is struggling through their day for different reasons. Each team member will most likely pay the price after the match for leaving it all on the court with increased pain levels or diminished physical and cognitive function. What is magical about para-athletes is that we have all danced with death itself, and we aren’t scared anymore. A collective dismissal of this common fear under one roof can be quite moving and powerful! We have all conquered this and come out learning so much more about ourselves. 


I often look at these unpredictable times during the pandemic and compare them to the challenges that I already face on a daily basis, with my ongoing chronic health issues. Honestly, relatively it doesn’t seem that difficult to cope with. I’ve been through much worse. We miss our families and friends. We miss that connectivity to others organically. We all have our down days, and I’m telling you, that’s ok. What I want you to ask yourself is, what strengths could you be gaining from all of this? How can you change your perspective to adapt to see different opportunities to embrace and then apply yourself? If you aren’t looking, then they won’t find you, and you won’t find them. Text book self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember that you are your own Captain of your own destiny. Taking accountability by proactively showing leadership over our own lives is just as important as being a great leader of any team. I learnt this in the only ‘individual’ competitive sport that I played - competitive boxing. I had to quickly learn that sometimes, there isn’t another teammate to rely on. Sometimes, it’s just you in that corner and it’s fight or flight. 


So how do my actions speak louder than my words? Well I was lucky enough to be connected to a whole new para community over the last few months. This time an independent para-sport, that can be safely done at proper social distancing - Para-Canoe-Kayaking! It was scary, new and completely out of my comfort zone. 



What I CAN tell you, is that once I put myself out there, slowed down and just took a deep breath, I realized how wonderfully therapeutic it was to get outside, enjoy the fresh air, be on the water watching the sunset, and take in all the Summer/Fall scenery! Or as their motto says ‘Discover a NEW sense of FREEDOM’. 


During our 2020 Summer, I was honoured to be welcomed with open arms by the incredible support of the Para-Canoe Kayak Ontario/Canada Organization.
https://canoekayak.ca/go-paddling/paracanoe/


I was lucky enough to be matched with the head coach Joel Hazzan of the Ottawa River Canoe Club (ORCC). 
With a very impressive resume of competing AND coaching at the National & International level, he has taught me everything I know. This past week, I was nominated to be on the Developmental Provincial Ontario team. It is an absolute honour. For the first time - just now, I just realized that I’m a duel-para athlete, both at the Ontario provincial level. I highly recommend canoe or kayak on a recreational and competitive level for all able bodies or anyone with disabilities! There are all sorts of adaptations for different functions and disabilities! We shall see where this new adventure takes me, and I hope to see you out there!! 


Throughout my journey over the past few years, I also cannot thank Infinit Nutrition Canada enough for their ongoing support and expertise. I connected with the President & CEO, Darcy Haggith, a couple years ago. His amazing energy and passion for all sports was truly apparent right off the bat. He took the time to really get to know me as an individual and as an athlete. It didn’t matter that I had not yet attained an elite level status in my para sport! Darcy made me feel just as important in finding ways to customize supplements tailored to my needs (proper nutrition is of course always first). Although, having the additional aid during our extensive exhausting training weeks, gives us all that extra competitive edge to continue to progress, and recover our resources at a much more efficient rate! At Infinit Canada, you can lock in your trust in their team to customize a plan for you and your needs - whether you are an able body or a para-athlete! 


I hope that my story has moved you, or that it can get you moving out there! 


Remember that any disability, is only a temporary inability, to see your wonderful abilities! You’re already a survivor! So take back another piece of your identity too! Your courage is already in your heart, you just have to find your special way to set it free! 


If there’s a wheel, there is a way! Stay active, stay healthy & stay safe! 



Brianna Hennessy

Wheelchair Rugby & Para-Kayak Athlete

@breezerhennessy