Article written by Holly Janna, Communications and National Team Coordinator for the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association
Among the highlights of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics was a showing of sensational performances by Canadian athletes with cerebral palsy and brain injury in the disciplines of athletics, swimming, and boccia. Swimming and athletics matched each other with a total of eight medals each. Together, they made up 80% of the total medals won by Canadian athletes at the Paralympics.
The athletes with cerebral palsy and brain injury in Tokyo include Canada’s Aly Van Wyck-Smart, Austin Smeenk, Danik Allard, Liam Stanley, Nathan Riech, Renée Foessel, and Zach Gingras. Many had surprising results and podium finishes at the Games.
Riech set a new Paralympic record with a dominant win in the men’s T38 1,500 metres race to grab gold with a time of 3:58.92 at his first Paralympic Games ever. “I just wanted to try to make that 10-year-old-me who was paralyzed in a hospital bed proud. That was my goal and I think I did that,” said Riech. He finished in front of second place by five seconds.
Gingras was very pleased with his performance as well: “I came into the Games ranked 7th, just making the Canadian team. So, to leave Tokyo with a bronze and two personal bests is insane.”
Cerebral palsy has greatly impacted his journey through sport: “In high school I started running para races at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations Track and Field Championships… Along the way, there have been challenges directly associated with CP, such as certain exercises I am currently unable to do, etc. but you just can’t quit. You keep trying and eventually you’ll get the results you are looking for.”
Renée Foessel narrowly missed the podium in the women’s F38 discus with a fourth-place finish and was very happy with her overall experience: “The Tokyo Games were so incredible and I’m so happy and thankful to have even been able to compete… This one, I was very honoured to attend because of the unsure climate that lead to the Games. The fact that the Games were delayed for another year gave me an opportunity to sit down and appreciate the fact that I’m able to do something that I love. To compete for a country that I’m so incredibly proud to be a part of and step on that stage and demonstrate the amount of hard work that the sport system had put into me. It was a very passionate Games and integral aspect of my year.”
The athletics athletes unanimously described the team’s cohesion as being very strong which allowed the athletes and staff to band together and support one another during the Games.
“Our team was so strong and supportive of one another and you felt it. From day one all the way through. Even when most of the athletes had left the village our athletics team was still communicating, sending messages and being supportive of one another… The results were amazing be it in the finals, on the podium, or just being there at the start line. I’m so proud,” explained Foessel.
Gingras’ favourite moment in Tokyo was experienced vicariously through his teammates’ successes: “Seeing the rest of the team set personal bests, Canadian records, and even some Paralympic records left and right was inspiring. My favourite moment was Nate Riech’s gold medal and Paralympic record in the T38 1500m. We live together so to see him win and hear our national anthem be played was emotional and a moment I will never forget.”
Stanley and Smeenk also made appearances in Tokyo but missed the podium with two fifth place performances. Smeenk also finished with a seventh place in the men’s T34 100 metres event.
In the pool, 2019 Breakout Para swimmer of the Year, Van Wyck-Smart swam in the S2 Backstroke 100m and S2 Backstroke 50m events. Back in 2017, she said her goal was to compete at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. At only 19 years old, she made the dream happen three years early. Although she did not qualify for the finals, she loves the self-reflection and feedback she receives from her coaches which she told the Canadian Paralympic Committee in a pre-Tokyo interview: “It makes you better. When I get feedback, I thrive on it. It makes me inspired to change, grow, and get faster. It gives me a drive to work harder, better, and smarter.”
BC2 boccia athlete Allard was another Canadian to turn heads. Allard burst onto the international scene in 2019 and after only two international performances punched his ticket to Tokyo. His dream was also to go to Paris 2024 but he reached his goal early. At 21 years old, he was the youngest BC2 class competitor at the Games. Although he did not make it to the playoffs, he ended on a high with a big 12-1 win against Russian athlete Diana Tsyplina to close off his tournament.
Allard, is looking ahead to the next Games: “I learned a lot during this competition and proved that I was capable of fighting against the best. My goal has been fulfilled. I’ll be ready for Paris 2024.”
Gingras is still soaking everything in but is excited to be reunited with his team again at training: “I’m already missing the Games and the team, so I am definitely going to continue to run until 2024 for sure, and probably beyond that as well. But first I have to ‘relax’ and take in the moment for a bit.” Visit the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s website to find out how other Canadians did in Tokyo here.