Rio falls in love with Priscilla Gagné thanks to volunteer
Long-time Brazilian friend made Canadian judoka feel at home during Paralympics debut
RIO DE JANEIRO — Canadian Paralympians have travelled more than 8,000 kilometres to the southeast end of Brazil, but for one athlete it felt like home.
First-time Paralympian Priscilla Gagné had her mother and father sitting just three rows up from the mat as she competed for bronze in the 52-kilogram B1 judo event. But her parents were not the only ones there to support her as she fought to a fourth-place finish on Thursday.
In a jam-packed Carioca Arena 3, the 30-year-old received thunderous applause from the local Brazilian audience throughout her day's matches, mostly from a group of elementary students from a local school who had suddenly discovered their new favourite judoka.
"It's so humbling because you know you're just a fish in the sea, and you don't notice people are looking at you until they make themselves heard," said Gagné, originally from Sarnia, Ont. "It's really overwhelming to know that there's so many people out there who are watching and are impacted in some way."
Behind much of the synchronized chanting in the building was Adriana Cabral, a Brazilian volunteer who has been offering her help at sporting events for a decade. Gagné and Cabral met years earlier at another event in Brazil and the Canadian made a lasting impression on her — so much so that Cabral went above and beyond to make her friend feel at home when she arrived for the Games.
When Gagné's parents, Shirley Beauregard and Jean-Charles Gagné, arrived in Rio, they found a package at their hotel containing two custom-made shirts with an image of their daughter and the words, "Go Canada Go," courtesy of Cabral.
"It is for motivation. It is my gift to Priscilla's family," Cabral said. "Priscilla is my friend. She is an amazing athlete and has such a big heart."
Gagne's tenacious fighting style make her a fan favourite in any part of the world. Her ability to smother opponents and maintain a relentless attack are both entertaining and inspiring.
"She gives her heart on the floor. She also gives her heart when it comes to helping people, which is something she loves to do," said Shirley, who believes that's the reason why her daughter is so beloved.
Gagné will leave Rio without the medal she desperately wanted to win, but with the knowledge that she once again inspired another wave of fans who got to see her give everything she had for her country, and for anyone else who believed in her.
With files from the Canadian Paralympic Committee