Priscilla Gagne won't let injuries dictate Paralympic outlook
Mishaps only make Sarnia, Ont., athlete stronger
There is something different about Priscilla Gagne.
Sure, at first glance, your focus is the vision impairment of this 29-year-old, 52-kilogram Paralympian judoka. But you need to spend time with her to discover what is concealed behind her cool, thoughtful demeanour.
This Canadian athlete has an intense desire to succeed.
Take last summer's Parapan Games. Held in Whitby, Ont., Gagne returned to the same town where she broke both of her feet in a competition four years earlier.
There was no fear in revisiting the place where she suffered such a painful mishap. Instead, her focus was to win, or at least finish high enough to qualify for the Rio Olympics.
"[Breaking my feet] was nothing to overcome for me," said Gagne. "It wasn't an issue. It wasn't a fear. The struggle was being in school in the winter, in a cast, having a dog. But as far as getting back into judo I had no problems at all. There were no mental blocks."
Gagne won three of her four bouts at the Parapan Games to win a silver medal. Her only loss was to gold medallist Michele Ferreira of Brazil. Gagne elevated her ranking to fifth in the world, and has locked up a spot in Rio (the top five and three wild-card spots will be announced in late February).
How did Gagne break both her feet in 2011? She was grappling with her opponent in a bout when she landed awkwardly, breaking one foot. She knew she had suffered an injury, but didn't realize how serious it was until after the fight had ended.
"I finished the fight, bowed and walked off," she said with a hint of pride. "But I couldn't stand up for the next match.
"I didn't have my judo feet yet, I guess. So when my foot landed I was going in the wrong direction. It didn't hurt, well, it hurt, but I continued to fight and because of the compensation [she made for her injured foot] I broke my other foot.
"I try not to scare off anybody about my foot injuries early on because that can be a huge deterrent. Basically, what happened is I was just moving with my opponent. We were both young. We were yellow belts. It wasn't a throw, it wasn't a projection. It was just the way we were moving."
The broken feet placed Gagne on the sidelines for eight months. But this was nothing new. She's picked herself up and dusted herself off many times before.
Gagne suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that narrows her peripheral vision field and means a complete loss of night vision. But her eyesight difficulties have never kept her from participating in any athletic endeavour.
If she wanted to ride a bike, she would hop on and pedal. If she wanted to skateboard, she would. If she wanted to run or compete in track, she would lace up and sprint all out. If she wanted to wrestle, well, she would do that, too.
"When somebody tells me 'no,' I never listen," said Gagne, who has run into poles and knocked herself unconscious, broken an arm while riding her bike, as well as suffered numerous scrapes and stitches as the result of injuries suffered because of her vision impairment.
But the mishaps only made her stronger. Even when she finished school and realized that her opportunities to wrestle had ended. There was no wrestling in the Paralympics. So she discovered judo in her 20s.
She successfully made the transition from leaning in wrestling to the upright position required for judo.
"The passion is there," she said. "My whole life was wrestling, now my whole life is judo. I have the judo bug and to taste success has been a big factor."
Career put on hold
Her judo career, however, was put on hold when the Granby, Que.-born Gagne, who moved to Sarnia, Ont., at age three, moved again to Ottawa to find a job in marketing in the nation's capital, one of the country's most hospitable places for the visually impaired.
Her passion for judo was kindled when her father visited Ottawa one weekend. He dragged his daughter to the renowned Takahashi Dojo, and before the she knew it, had her fill out a membership application and paid her dues.
It was on Gagne's way out after this first visit she met former Canadian Olympian Nathalie Gosselin, a two-time Pan Am Games bronze medallist and competitor in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
"Her determination, her fire," replied Gagne, when asked what Gosselin has meant to the Paralympian. "She's a machine. She wants it for me and she wants it for herself. It's contagious.
"Her relentlessness is definitely something I picked up on. Her commitment to me and her message to train, and to train, and to train is something that I have picked up on, too."
But the role models in Gagne's life don't end with Gosselin. There is her father, her national team coach Andrzej Sadej and her older brother.
"There would be no way I'd be where I am today without them," Gagne said.
She recalled a recent pep talk with Sadej. She was down about her training, but as usual, Sadej picked her up.
"He told me he planned on going to Rio not as a tourist, but to win," Gagne said. "I thought to myself if he has that kind of faith in me, I should have that kind of faith in me.
"It was huge boost in my faith with my dream in judo to give it my all. It was something that will stick with me the rest of my life."
Her brother also provided her with inspirational steps. He didn't finish high school as a teenager, but returned to earn his diploma and then attend college in his late 20s.
"My brother is a super large supporter," she said. "He's never really been into sports. But he's never held me back. He's always been there for me and he's been an inspiration to me."