Thunder Bay·Video

Paralympic dream realized after Olympic dream crushed for Thunder Bay, Ontario rower

Andrew Todd admits he took an unusual path to reach the podium in Rio, but the rower from Thunder Bay, Ont., says the journey he took to win that Paralympic bronze medal is what makes it so very "special."

Bronze medal represents Andrew Todd's desire to row again after devastating injury in 2013

Andrew Todd, of Thunder Bay, Ont., takes a bite of his bronze medal in rowing from the Rio 2016 Paralympics. (Cathy Alex/CBC)
Olympic dream denied.. Paralympic dream fulfilled.. Andrew Todd of Thunder Bay is just back from Brazil, where he won a bronze medal in rowing at the Rio Paralympics. 9:19

Andrew Todd admits he took an unusual path to reach the podium in Rio, but the rower from Thunder Bay, Ont., says the journey he took to win that Paralympic bronze medal is what makes it so very "special."

"My mom always asks me 'Does it feel real yet?' and I'm starting to say yes, but the road definitely wasn't the straightest, and it didn't unfold the way I had thought it would."

If things had played out the way Todd imagined they would, he would have been competing in the lightweight mens four at the Olympics in Brazil.

In fact, he was training to do just that in London Ont., in 2013, when a school bus ran through a stop sign, hitting and dragging Todd, who was out on his bicycle for a training ride.

The injuries were severe - a shattered pelvis, road rash which required skin grafts to repair, nerve impairment to his lower leg, partial loss of function in his quadriceps and hamstrings, and most seriously, half of his knee joint had been completely destroyed.

Not sure he'd ever get back in a boat

Todd required a bone donation to rebuild the joint. Part of his calf muscle was removed and reattached to his upper leg to create more stability.

"I don't think I fully grasped what had happened until a few days after and I realized it was going to be a long journey and I wasn't sure if I was even going to be able to get back into a boat," he said.

But in a boat was where he wanted to be, so Todd drew strength from his family and friends and leaned on rowing, especially the rowing community in Ottawa where he went to university and had been training, to heal both his body, and his spirit.

"I truly believe if I didn't have rowing I wouldn't have recovered to the extent I did."

But there were many challenges.

'Incredible' feeling to be back on the water

"I was comparing myself to where I used to be, prior to the accident, and that was tough at first, mentally, because obviously your body has gone through all these changes and it's really not fair to yourself to make that comparison and so I really tried to just start comparing myself to where am I at today, and where was I at yesterday," he said.

Then one day, he was finally able to get back to the water.

"Whatever stresses you have, whatever things are going on in your life that are challenges, you can leave those on shore and get out on the water, and you're in your own little world, and you can focus on the now. It was incredible to get that feeling back."

But Todd's recovery was dealt a major blow in September 2015, when he was diagnosed with a serious infection at the site of the bone graft.

Andrew Todd (second from left) poses with teammates Victoria Nolan, Meghan Montgomery, Todd, Curtis Halladay and Kirsten Kit after they won bronze in the Legs Trunk Arms mixed coxed four at the Lagoa Stadium at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. (Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

"I wasn't expecting it," he said referring to another lengthy hospital stay and yet another arduous, painful round of rehabilitation.

"I felt like I was finally out of the woods, because all the surgeries up to that point, I knew were coming, whereas this was a surprise. So mentally, I was in a pretty dark place." 

Again, he relied on family, friends and rowing to help him recover, and to give him the strength and motivation to get where he wanted to be — the regatta in Rio, where he won bronze in the Legs, Trunks, Arms mixed coxed four event.

"As amazing as it is to have won a bronze medal, I think that for me, the memories of Rio and of the Paralympics, will encapsulate all of the journey that lead up to it. "I think you have to look at it that way because you're putting so much of your life into it, you can't really compress it into one three-minute race."

Todd is heading to Nova Scotia, at the end of September, to resume his training.

This mat is at the front door to Andrew Todd's parents home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Like his bronze medal, it represents his long journey from his 2013 accident. (Cathy Alex/CBC )