Christine Gauthier is ready to get back on the podium as Paracanoe makes its Paralympic Games debut in Rio.
Pain travelled through her body with every stroke.
At the 2015 Worlds in Italy, the five-time World Paracanoe Champion had a chance to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games, with the odds stacked heavily against her.
Gauthier was hit by a car on December 28, 2014 while training in Florida. She was left with a fractured elbow in the middle of training for one of the largest events of her life. But adversity was not a foreign feeling for Gauthier. With hardly any time to properly train and warnings that she would worsen her injury, Gauthier was going to give everything she had in that race.
“I knew the doctors and everybody wanted me to completely stop doing everything for a few months but, I didn’t think I could,” Gauthier said. “I was like listen; I need to qualify.”
Mark Granger has been a National team coach for over 20 years and oversees the paracanoe training. After she successfully qualified, Gauthier revealed the severity of her injury to him.
“She didn’t want us to know how bad the injury was because she thought maybe we would have taken her out of the race,” Granger said. “Her doctors told her not to, her physiotherapists told her not to. They knew she had a broken bone and can’t go out and do a race like that. She did it anyways.”
Shooting pains hampered her as she cut through the water. She battled in the preliminaries and gutted out a remarkable performance in the finals, sliding into the sixth and final qualifying spot.
“I could barely paddle. My arm was just so sore. It was so swollen. It’s a fracture, so of course its not well,” Gauthier said.
While she was unhappy with the unfamiliar territory of being left off the podium, Gauthier admitted that it was a good thing based on the situation she was in.
She has dominated the women’s K1 200-metre LTA (legs, trunk, and arms) event since winning her first gold medal on home soil at the World Championships in 2009. Her strength and endurance is matched by her relentless determination.
“When she races, she’s on a mission. She told me, ‘when I go race, I know my mission, I know what I want to do, I just block everything out and do the best I can do,’” Granger said. “She has no boundaries. She just goes for it.”
Fighting through pain is something the Dorval, Que. native has done for the last 25 years. Gauthier served in the Canadian military’s regular force field artillery for ten years, until a training accident in 1989 forced her into retirement. She sustained injuries to her back and
knees, which is why she uses a wheelchair, but the damage the accident did was not only physical.
“I was ten years inactive in my house. Completely depressed and totally out of shape and left completely isolated,” Gauthier said. “Because when I first got injured, the rehab thoughts at the time were to do as little as possible so you don’t keep deteriorating your condition.”
After suffering with her unfamiliar condition for more than a decade, paddling quickly became an important part of her life.
“It drove me out of my isolation. It helped me out with regaining control of my life and getting myself back in shape, giving me hope for as normal a life as can be in the condition that I am in.”
The decision for who will represent Canada at the games with the quota spot that she won for the nation has not been made official. There is not currently any other paddler on the circuit with the pedigree of Gauthier, but her humble nature has her training as if she still needs to earn it.
Sunday is the only time Gauthier can be found relaxing – she spends the rest of the week training at least three times a day. Weight-lifting, machine-rowing, paddling, swimming, and biking are all on the list of to-do’s.
The preparation and hard-work will not stop until the greatest paracanoe athletes in the world gather at the Paralympic Games for the first time in September. With some competitors being 25 years younger than her, she knows it will be another challenge. If she can get back to the world-leading times she was registering before her injury, a gold medal will be in reach.
But for Gauthier, the hardware would be just another piece to throw on the mantle. It is the feeling of donning the red and white that fulfills her.
“It’s not the gold medal around my neck that’s important to me, its Canada placing first,” Gauthier said. “For me, the greatest moment is when my national anthem is being played.”