The sight of pure euphoria etched on each athlete’s face when finishing the 2001 Edmonton Triathlon World Championship is an indelible image in the life of Chantal Givens.
This singular moment inspired her to give the sport a try— and her decision to do so has paid off tremendously.
She is a three-time Canadian Paratriathlon champion, and has secured the necessary world qualification ranking in the PT4 classification to earn the right to partake in the first ever Paralympics triathlon competition in September.
Givens’ journey to get to this point has been long and winding. Those who know her well would likely attribute her can-do spirit as a major factor in her success up until now.
It was her parents, Jim and Madeleine Denholm, who instilled this quality in her. They empowered her to do things independently even though she was born without a left hand.
“They didn’t treat me as someone different or someone to coddle,” Givens said. “They said, ‘Okay, we’ll see what she can do.’
“I learned to tie my shoes at four-and-a-half. I look at kids in school [today], and let me tell you Velcro was not prominent then,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t ‘can you do it, but it was how you can do it.’ Just being treated as a regular kid, and being encouraged to try and find solutions instead of ‘we’ll do this for you,’ really started that mind frame.”
Her outlook on life prompted her to try out many different sports as a kid from softball to alpine skiing to taekwondo. She settled into springboard diving when she was 14.
When Givens first started out as a springboard diver, she set a goal to qualify for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Making this dream happen was going to be extremely difficult considering there was no category for para-athletes, meaning she would have to achieve the same competitive standard as able-bodied athletes to lock down a spot at the Games.
Given this reality, she decided to re-adjust her goals and focus on qualifying for senior nationals. This objective was realized as she competed at the 2002 Canadian Summer Senior National Championship in Victoria, B.C. Givens competed in the one-metre and three-metre categories (she was eliminated in the preliminary round of both events).
Almost one year before the championship, Givens and her Team Canada diving teammates volunteered at the triathlon worlds in her hometown of Edmonton.
At the conclusion of that tournament, she decided that triathlon would be the sport she would attempt once her diving career was over. She left the diving team in 2002.
While working towards a masters degree in biological sciences at the University of Alberta, Givens began participating in a recreation triathlon program. She soon signed up for two local races, one of them a swimming competition and the other a half iron man race.
A week after these contests, Givens entered the triathlon age-group nationals. She was told at the event that there was a category for athletes with a disability —and she was the only female athlete in that grouping. If she finished the race she would win. She did.
Soon after this competition, Givens flew to Europe. She travelled overseas to work for a year, and also to complete a bike tour of the country.
While she was in Europe, she decided to register in the 2003 International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cup being hosted in Madeira, Portugal. She once again competed in the athletes with a disability category.
Givens had a negative experience.
“It was almost humiliating because we are in Madeira in Portugal and the race is delayed by almost an hour,” she said. “They changed the course two days before the race, because the hills were too steep for wheelchairs. They didn’t calculate the distance of the new course, we didn’t have timing mats, and we didn’t get split times, and they did the awards for the disabled athletes on the lawn and not on the podium because the podium is not wheelchair accessible.”
After this tournament, Givens no longer had an appetite to compete in the athlete with a disability category. She decided to train even harder in order to race as an able-bodied participant.
This move did bear some fruit as she competed at the 2003 and 2004 dualathlon age group world championships (run-cycle-run).
Following these tourneys, Givens first returned to school for a year in Edmonton, and then completed a move to Winnipeg, in 2006, to work for the Louis Riel School Division as a gym teacher.
Two years later, Givens raced in the 2008 triathlon age group world championships in Vancouver, B.C. She said she went as far as she could as a triathlete.
“I kind of thought that this was it, and there wasn’t any more potential, so I started running marathons.”
It was at a local race in 2012 where Givens first heard about paratriathlon. She was told that it was completely different than athlete with a disability, and was encouraged to sign up for the 2012 Canadian Paratriathlon Championships in Edmonton.
She did not make her decision as to whether she would go until a few days before the tournament.
“I did not actually decide to go to that race until the week of, because I was pretty burnt out. I had just run the Boston Marathon and my dad had recently passed away. When I was told about it I wasn’t convinced.
“I decided four days before the race that, ‘You know what? I should just go give it a try.’ And a couple of my friends while we were on a nice easy social run told me, ‘Just go. You have nothing to lose.’ It was there that I discovered how the sport had taken off and where it is going.”
Givens shone brightly in her national paratriathlon debut by winning the PT4 Canadian championship. The level of competition at this championship exhilarated her. She won the title in a sprint finish.
Another very positive aspect of this event for her was witnessing tournament organizers work very hard to make it a premier event.
More thought was put into creating a proper course, there were elegant awards ceremonies, there was a VIP tent for the athletes, and there were officials from around the world on site to help make the championship run smoothly.
“That was the first time I saw us being treated like other elite racers,” Givens said. “Just seeing how much people were investing in the sport shows they are beginning to care about it and treat this as an elite event and not as something to sweep under the rug at other events.”
Her love for triathlon was rekindled.
Givens won a second Canadian paratriathlon title a year later, and she also participated in her first world championship in London, England. She finished fourth in the PT4 class with a time of 1:22.49.
“That was a highlight,” she said in her congenial tone. “There was not as much elation in the moment, but it was definitely important for me in helping me know that paratriathlon is something I want to invest in, and I see potential in this.”
The Winnipeg resident completed a championship three-peat at Canadian nationals in Edmonton in 2014.
She did not get a chance to vie for a fourth straight crown.
On August 18 of last year, while completing a training ride, Givens fell off her bike and fractured her right shoulder.
World championships were four-and-a-half weeks away, but the emergency room doctors were prescribing a six to eight week recovery period. The doctors also recommended Givens to not move her shoulder for two weeks, but that would have meant she would not be able to use the washroom, not be able to brush her teeth, and not be able to drink water.
Instead of responding to this unfortunate turn of events in a overtly panicked or self-defeated manner, Givens remained calm and refused to allow any negative thoughts to percolate her mind.
“I knew by this point that world championships was a must to be in contention for Rio. In my mind I went, “Okay, checklist, what do I have to do?’ I am in a situation where I have to do everything I can possibly do to get minimum amount of success to keep my journey alive.’ I really almost went into troubleshooting mode.”
First item on her to-do-list was to get a second opinion.
As a member of the Canadian Sports Centre Manitoba, Givens was afforded an opportunity to consult with an orthopedic surgeon within two days. Givens was told that she would be able to do important day-to-day things like brush her teeth. She also gained counsel on what to eat, when to sleep and how to work out in order to expedite the recovery process as much as possible.
While the advice she received significantly aided her recovery, Givens did have to deal with tremendous day-to-day hurdles.
“I couldn’t get clothes on or off well at all, particularly with my upper body because it just hurt my shoulder,” she said. “The worst was I would lie flat on my back to sleep, but when I tried to sit up to get water, or to get out of bed, no matter what there is some sort of rotation in it so that was probably the worst part.”
Throughout her recovery, Givens maintained her positive attitude and displayed true grit in her battle to return. She said this accident helped make her appreciate the opportunity to be a paratriathlete even more.
Though she was able to make a remarkable comeback to compete at worlds, Givens was forced to bow out of the 2015 Canadian Paratriathlon Championships (Sept. 5-6).
“I’ll be honest, the day of the race in Edmonton is probably the only day I broke down and cried,” Givens said. “The girl that won the event I had beat by seven minutes when I had a disappointing race. It was hard to see that. Seeing those results probably was my lowest point.”
Merely coming back and just finishing her world championship race in Chicago (Sept.15-19) was not going to cut it for Givens. She needed to finish in the top seven in order to stay in the running for Rio. She finished the triathlon in seventh place with a time of 1:15.06.
Carolyn Murray, the head coach of the Canadian paratriathlon team, considers the ITU Grand Final in Chicago as the most memorable triathlon she has witnessed Givens complete.
“I was so proud of her, and I just admired the tenacity she had to put it all out there,” Murray said. “She was capable of a better result if she had the training, but for her to go out there and to actually put it down in a critical race, because the point scoring is so high at world championships that if she was not able to compete it would have had a huge impact on her ability to qualify for Rio. She knew that and she did everything she could.”
A strong showing in Chicago kept Givens’ dream alive, but the hard work to lock down a qualification spot was far from over.
Givens missed out on valuable qualification ranking points because of missing out on Canadian Nationals. She has had to jet off to competitions all across the world this year in order to stay in the top six in the Rio qualification rankings list for PT4 women. She has traveled to Florida, Spain and Australia this year for competitions.
The apex of Givens’ whirlwind year to date is when she won her first ever world paratriathlon event in Aguilas, Spain in the middle of May. She completed the challenging para-course that consisted of a 750-metre swim, a 20-kilometre bike ride, and a five-kilometre run with a time of 1:15.09.
With Givens still holding down a spot in the top six following the completion of the final paratriathlon-qualifying event in France on Sunday, she has secured an automatic berth to compete in her first Paralympics.
She will likely hold off on celebrating until being officially nominated to the Canadian team.
“I feel great about my ranking position, but still the invitation goes to Canada, and Canada has to choose to send me, and especially after that injury last year I know things can change.”
Murray said July 8 is the day when Triathlon Canada will find out the exact number of athletes Canada can send to Rio. The Canadian coach is targeting three spots. An official team announcement is scheduled to take place, as of now, on July 12.
Now that the crazy travel schedule is behind her, Givens is looking forward to settling into a good training routine. She and her Team Canada teammates are in a base phase of training. The goal of the base phase is for the athletes to build endurance. They will shift to a higher intensity training regiment closer to Rio.
The Winnipeg inhabitant is eager to take all the lessons from her training and her competitions to produce her best performance possible.
The first Paralympics paratriathlon will be televised on September 10 and 11: The men will compete on the 10th and the ladies will race on the 11th.
Givens said in addition to paratriathlon being entertaining, it can be quite an inspiring spectacle.
“For people watching, it is amazing to be able to see the grit that is on people’s faces as they push though this. The para-race is different because there are so many disabilities, and to see what people are doing is awesome, despite whatever cards they have been dealt.
“It’s amazing. I think that it’s important to inspire everyone. Instead of saying, ‘I wish I was taller’ or ‘I wish I was this,’ say ‘This is what I’ve got. Let’ s make the most of it and let’s be amazing.’ You see that watching the triathlon.”
Photos taken from Chantal Givens’ website
Feature image taken by Wagner Araujo.
Second image taken by Matthew Stockman.
Third Image taken by triathlon.org.