Para sport welcomes me - but do I belong?

Para sport welcomes me - but do I belong?


Am I 'disabled enough' to be involved in para sport?

By Kamylle Frenette for CBC Sports
February 7, 2021
 

To stand a chance in a game of poker, a wise coach once told me, “all you need is a chip and a chair.”

As every endurance athlete knows, training gives you a lot of time to think about your sport. Sometimes, I think about how it all started for me. Sometimes I think about my inspirations and dreams. And sometimes, I question whether or not I belong.

Growing up in Dieppe, N.B., I played a multitude of different sports and was competitive among my peers. I always knew that one of my feet was smaller than the other, but my parents never once made me feel like I was different from any other athletes. Because of this, I never considered the lingering discomfort and the extra room in my right shoe a disability.

I was born with a condition called Unilateral Talipes Equinovarus, more commonly known as a unilateral clubfoot. At the age of four months, I had corrective surgery which left everything below my right knee just a little smaller.

I grew up watching my dad compete in triathlons, and I started training with him at the age of 16. We traveled across New Brunswick almost every weekend in our camper, competing together. My mother, who has always been our rock, would get up at the crack of dawn to help us get ready and cheer us on.

My favorite place to race will always be on the beaches of my home province, getting inspiration from my father and his friends. They make triathlon a community gathering as much as a competition. It may be a friendly background, but make no mistake, my competitive self has always dreamed of reaching the international stage.

Dad and I after a sprint finish in N.B. (Not sure who won, it was always so close)  Submitted by Kamylle Frenette Dad and I after a sprint finish in N.B. (Not sure who won, it was always so close) Submitted by Kamylle Frenette
Racing a duathlon, with my dad, in Moncton,  2015.  Submitted by Kamylle Frenette Racing a duathlon, with my dad, in Moncton, 2015. Submitted by Kamylle Frenette

The opportunity to do this came unexpectedly.

The Canadian Paratriathlon team approached me in 2016. Until then, I never thought I would be eligible. It took me a while to accept, publicly, that I have a disability. But I soon began to embrace the opportunity that was coming my way. Still, ever since that first day when I was approached to take part in parasport, I have continued to wonder if I truly belong.

I am sure other athletes like me have had the same inner debate. Maybe even some members of the public have wondered: Am I “disabled enough” to be involved in para sport?

In such a debate, I could reference the alignment of my bones and joints compared to other people. I could describe the pain I feel while running, and the limited strength and motion in my right leg. I could detail the battery of eligibility testing I underwent to assess just how much difference these things make while racing. I could try to justify my place in the program that I love. But as every good conversationalist knows, it is not about who wins a debate, it’s about the lessons learned and messages exchanged while debating.

Frenette, third from left, and Canadian Team mates, Edmonton 2019. Submitted by Kamylle Frenette Frenette, third from left, and Canadian Team mates, Edmonton 2019. Submitted by Kamylle Frenette
 

The problem with this debate is that evaluating my place in para sport forces me to compare myself to those that we call “normal.” What does “normal” really mean? Could I not do away with this reference point and just see myself as I am? In reality, everyone has a “little foot” of their own. Something that can only be noticed if it is compared to a “normal” reference point that doesn’t even exist.

Frenette finished 4th at Lausanne 2019 para triathlon world championships. /Tommy Zafares ITU media Frenette finished 4th at Lausanne 2019 para triathlon world championships. /Tommy Zafares ITU media

On Sunday nights during this isolation era, I have developed a new ritual, virtually connecting with a group of old running teammates and coaches. These video calls often lead to a game of virtual poker, which I know little about but love to play anyway. I often find my pile of chips dropping very quickly and hear my friends yelling to me: “all you need is a chip and a chair!”

On a long solo run the other day, I realized this is how I fit into para sports. In life, some people have more chips, some people have fewer chips, or chips of different colours, shapes and sizes. My stack may be different, but I have chips, and para sports gave me my chair. They gave me, my amazing teammates, and my competitors, a chair at the table of peak potential.

Para sport embraces many categories. The category I compete in is PTS5. The categories give someone like me the opportunity to be the best athlete they can be. Everyone, no matter what chips they hold, should be allowed the opportunity to reach their peak potential. They should be given a chair at the table.

 

So in my ongoing internal debate about whether I belong in parasport, I am realizing that maybe it’s not a matter of yes or no. Maybe inclusion comes with another lens for the PTS5 category, and we should feel confident that we belong in parasport even if the physical repercussions of our disabilities are proven to be more subtle in testing.

I think we often ask ourselves the wrong questions. I’ve been obsessed with putting a label on myself, “normal”, “abnormal”, “disabled”, etc. But in hindsight, I shouldn’t be asking myself whether I’m disabled enough. I should be accepting my situation, the chips I am given, and take my chair at the table of peak potential. My peak potential. Not yours. Mine.

Frenette running the final section of  2019 para triathlon world championships. /Tommy Zafares ITU media Frenette running the final section of 2019 para triathlon world championships. /Tommy Zafares ITU media
 

I may sound confident, but I don’t always think this way. I am learning to see myself as I am, without comparison to hypothetical reference points. It might be hard for others to see, but I do have a disability, and parasport gives me a place where I can enjoy my pursuit of high-performance sport, and achieve excellence.

 

Next Question:The Kamylle Frennette edition

Q: The best book you've read? 
A: A House in the Sky: A Memoir - Amanda Lindhout

Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: Surprisingly (for an endurance athlete) don't listen to podcasts very much

Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: Find a way to enjoy every step of the way

Q: If your life is a movie, what would it be called?
A: Life of Adventures

Q: Word or phrase you overuse? 
A: : "Let's Go!"

Q: Skill you wish you had?
A: The ability to speak more languages

Q: Something no one would guess about you?
A: recently learned how to knit

Q: What scares you?
A: Losing someone I love

Q: Who gets an invite to your ultimate influential dinner party?
A: Serena Williams, Paula Findlay, Michelle Obama, Michael Phelps, Simon Whitfield, Brian McKeever

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Movie: "The Pursuit of Happiness"

Q: Next goal?
A: Bring home a medal

 

 

Top large image, Wagner Araujo / ITU media

 

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