September 6, 2016

This little piece of metal

It's small enough to sink into the palm of my prosthetic-clad hand. Large enough to fill me with great satisfaction.

What you see here is a single medal from the Canadian Canoe Association sprint national championships, a competition held annually near the end of August.

For some paddlers, their collection of these little medallions boggles the mind. They count them, literally, in the dozens.

For me, this is the only one I have.

In 26 years of paddling—hell, in a lifetime of multiple sports—I’ve never held a top award in my hands outside of my own province. This week, that all changed, and I couldn’t be more pleased. I’ll even go ahead and say this: I am proud.

I won this at the ‘CCA’s’ on Lake Banook, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  Lake Banook may be insignificant as a geographic detail perhaps, but it’s significant to me in personal history. I first raced here 20 years ago, my very first time at a CCA sprint national championship, as a wide-eyed, vaguely out of control, in-it-for-the-fun 16 year-old.

I raced at a couple of successive CCAs after that, finding my way into various finals in singles and team races.

But I never found my way on to the podium.

In 1999, the sport changed for me—life changed—completely, when I had an industrial accident that left me without most of the fingers on my left hand.

Did you know it’s hard to hold on to a kayak paddle without fingers?

But, I was determined to try—you can never run out of try—and so, by 2001, following rehab, etc.  I was back at it with a pathetically ill-fitting, rudimentary prosthetic, racing against able-bodied paddlers with a sore hand and a technique that was forever changed. 

There was no para circuit back then. By 2004, I started to fade away from the sport for a while, frustrated by the change in my ability and feeling unsupported by the sport—I even had competitors tell me they didn’t think I should be able to participate, perceiving my use of a prosthetic as some sort of advantage.

School, marriage, work, kids… these things were paid more due than my love of being in boat. I hadn’t run out of ‘try’, but it was a fine time to shift my focus. Today I have a family, a house, a job, all of which I love and am blessed to have, and owe much to that break I took.

Eventually, I started to hear that there was in fact a para circuit, and that I would likely qualify, on assessment in a particular class. That was late in 2012. Little did I know that the para class had actually been gaining steam for a few years at that point. I made a slow re-entry to the sport. Inquiries before action. Tons of them. Looking into rules, and classifications, and equipment, and qualifications processes, and potential time commitments, and ultimately, discussions with family about what it could all mean.

Finally, though, the clincher: the para class was going to be debuting in Rio at the 2016 Paralympics. Time for action.

With my family’s blessing, I jumped back in. I was full of try again. I bought the appropriate Para class boat—the first flatwater sprint boat I have ever called my own, this in itself a dream fulfilled since I first sat in a boat as a kid in Kamloops. I started training again. Even went to my first Florida training camp (after 20 years of hearing people talk about the camps down there, what with all the dolphins and manatees and warm waters, it was my turn!).

Then, a little roadblock: The International Canoe Federation reconsidered the classifications for para kayak. My amputation no longer qualified to shoot for international competition…never mind that a dude can barely hold on to a paddle without a prosthetic. In the wake of the classifications change, numerous paddlers around the globe were declassified. Disappointing, to be sure, what with the Rio Paralympics a goal for many people at that point.

I wasn’t going to run out of try this time.

I jumped right into the V-1 class outrigger (or Va'a, if you prefer) sanctioned alongside the para kayaks as a para sprint discipline, though not to be included in Rio. It is totally new to me in the last year and a half, but I love it. I’m still classified internationally, and I’ve kept training at it. I basically reduced my sights to the CCAs for 2015.

But I didn’t get to nationals in 2015.Never mind why. It was work related and that’s how life goes.

Never run out of try.

I set sights on 2016, and here I am today.

I have a picture in my mind of me as a rake-thin 10 year-old, trying a sprint kayak for the first time.

I have this ACTUAL picture of me as a (still) rake thin 12 year-old (now with a mullet) and now totally into this sport.
I picture my progress as a kid through provincial championships, BC Games, Western Canadian Championships, and Canada Games and past CCAs, all full of their own successes and disappointments.
I have a picture of all those other sports I was doing at the same time, with paddling always seeming to come out at the top of list of interests.
And I picture the 23 year-old amputee ready to step back for a while.
And I see my adult life, mixing marriage and kids and work with this life-long love affair with the water, and the paddle and the boat.

Here's the real point of all this: Until today, paddling has never come with any particular accolades, but the love was always there. Paddling has always been one of my churches.

Today, I look down again at this little piece of metal pressed to my palm. And I think about the last 20 years since my first CCA,
Maybe love has been enough to motivate me.
Maybe, maybe I KNEW that I would one day have a moment like this and that kept me coming back. With or without fingers.
With or without years of delay. Always knowing I loved this sport and wanting to keep trying for… something.
I am glad, today, that I have a family who puts up with this little obsession, employers who are flexible with my vacation days, and above all, despite delays and times on the sidelines, that I made it to today… I never ran out of try.
How did I know I would get here?
Did I know?
I don’t know.
But I must have known.
Because I wrote this entire post last February.
Not knowing, but believing, a day like this might finally be coming.

I am excited for the future of para paddling in Canada. There's building to be done, but I'm going to work hard to make sure others might be able to find a passion for this sport like the one I have had for all this time.
Alright, that’s enough chatter. If you need me, I’ll be on the water.