The reflection of American sprinter Michael Johnson’s gold shoes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics played a big part in Priscilla Gagné’s dream of becoming an athlete on the world’s biggest stage.
Gagné, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a visual impairment affecting her central vision, was only 10 years old at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Standing close to the television, she could make out the white stripes of the tracks, the “whitish spots” Of the runners circling it and the faces of the athletes in the close-ups. Her aunt pointed out that Johnson wears gold spikes.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it’s brave to wear gold running shoes. I hope he wins just because it would be horrible if he didn’t and wore gold shoes, ”said Gagné with a laugh. “It was my little thought of 10 years old, and he won (the 200 and 400 meters). And seeing the smile on his face.
“So that inspired me. It was my start. I thought I would go to the Olympics as a runner.
Gagné’s introduction to Paralympic sports at the age of 15 was a game-changer, however, she said. And now one of the best parajudo athletes in the world, Gagné will carry the Canadian flag at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympic Games on Tuesday.
The 35-year-old athlete from Sarnia, Ont., Is ranked second in the world at 52 kilograms. She finished fifth in her Paralympic debut in Rio in 2016 and in 2018 became the first Canadian to step onto the medal podium at the world parajudo championships, winning bronze.
Gagné was unable to attend the Rio Opening Ceremony or the two Parapan Am Games at which she competed and won silver. Ceremonies were always in conflict with having to put on weight.
So she was already delighted at the idea of walking. Carrying the flag, she said, is a huge honor.
“To me, this represents unity in diversity, it represents strength and resilience, and it represents hope for something greater than what we have,” she said. “I really hope that for children with disabilities this inspires them to never stop dreaming, to never listen to someone saying no to them and to side with people who believe in them.”
Gagné, who will have her training partner and guide Laurie Wiltshire by her side at the Olympic Stadium, said the past 19 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic have been tough for Paralympic athletes. The able-bodied judokas of Canada’s national team trained together in a tight bubble, but Gagné and another Paralympic athlete were excluded.
“It really hurts,” said Gagné, who lives and trains in Montreal. “It reminded me of a lot of times from my childhood, feelings from when I was a kid and just trying to be like other kids. I thought we had grown so much as a company that we had put a lot of work into it and everyone was so supportive and open to integrated sport, and I thought we had come this far.
“I understand that people find themselves in positions where they make decisions that they don’t want to have to make, and there’s a lot of paperwork and different funding, but it still hurts a lot. And that made it very difficult.
Gagné said her training was on hiatus until May of this year when she was able to travel to Texas to train. She then traveled to Lethbridge, Alberta, and Calgary. She was warmed by the support she received in all three locations.
“I think if I hadn’t experienced the hardships at the start, I might not have appreciated the depth of their generosity and kindness,” she said.
Stephanie Dixon, Canada’s Chef de Mission for Tokyo, called Gagné in Montreal to tell her that she had been chosen as flag bearer. Gagné was walking her dog at the time, a shepherd and lab mix that is 14 and a half years old and “very slow so it took a while to get home to call her back,” Gagné said with a laugh.
“There was no immediate thought, it was like a whirlwind of thoughts. It’s the excitement. It’s nostalgia. That’s all. And gratifying too because of the year we’ve been through, and just the struggles we’ve had with training and with the bureaucracy, and that sort of thing. It was so nice to have this gift. It is what it is, it is a gift.
Dixon said that Gagné’s passion and excellence “on and off the mat is immeasurable and this honor is well deserved.
“She will be an incredible ambassador for Canada at the Games, and I know our entire team will be proud to have her in mind,” said Dixon, who won 19 Paralympic medals in swimming.
Like the Olympics which ended two weeks ago, Gagné will lead a small contingent of Canadian team athletes into the stadium due to concerns over COVID-19. But there will be a viewing night at the Athletes’ Village, Dixon said.
Canada has 128 athletes, including guides, participating in 18 sports in Tokyo.
The Games end on September 5.