My journey to the Paralympic Games was, like many of our Canadian athletes, unexpected and unplanned. At age 12, I lost the use of my legs when a heavy barn door fell on me and fractured my spine. Living in the small Quebec town of Saint-Marc-des-Carrières, I was fortunate to receive exceptional support from my family and community.
It was my high school gym teacher, Gaston Jacques, who started me on the path to becoming an athlete after my accident. Gaston encouraged to me to swim to gain strength and fitness. Incredibly, he gave up his lunch hour, three days a week for five years, to take me swimming at the pool.
The strength and confidence I gained through swimming using only my arms and upper body convinced me that I could lead a normal life and have some independence as a teenager. By university, I started wheelchair racing and became passionate about that sport. My wheelchair racing career spanned five Paralympic Games from 1992 to 2008 and 21 medals.
Now retired from competing, my focus is on supporting and mentoring the next generation of athletes and building awareness of the Paralympic movement. For the second time, it is my honour to be Chef de Mission for Team Canada. My first, at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, was a remarkable experience. Now, I have the privilege of leading Canada at the Games that made me who I am today.
The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, set for Sept. 7-18, will be the biggest Paralympic Games in history. Around 4,350 athletes from 170 countries will compete in 22 sports. The Games will be broadcast around the world to an estimated audience of close to 2 billion people. The Canadian team will consist of approximately 155 athletes in 19 sports. Many of our athletes also competed last summer at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, where Canada delivered its best-ever performance, finishing third in the total medal count. So our athletes are headed to Rio with a lot of confidence and with medals on their minds.
As Chef de Mission, my official role is to lead and motivate our team, as well as serving as team spokesperson. And I also want to be a leader on the personal level. The athletes and coaches know they can reach me anytime for advice or concerns before, during and after the Games.
As part of our plan for Rio, Assistant Chef de Mission Norm O’Reilly and I have developed a vision called “Mean It” — building on an athlete’s focus and drive. We are sharing this to help raise our level of preparation and performance in Rio and beyond. The world has picked up its game and we need to match it.
I have been to Rio in the past year and I am confident these will be a very successful Games. What will make these Games special are the people of Rio. They are warm, friendly and proud of their country. Canada will also be proud of its Paralympic and Olympic athletes. Our motto is #ParaTough and I know this will shine through in our athletes’ performances and character, both on and off the field of play.
I invite you to follow our team and get to know our Canadian Paralympians. Be prepared to be amazed by their performances and inspired by their stories. It will change you forever.
Newly appointed Sen. Chantal Petitclerc is Team Canada Chef de Mission for Rio.