“I retired really knowing that I had done everything I wanted to do in the sport”
When Chantal Petitclerc retired from international competition after the Beijing Games in 2008, her crowded trophy case became even more flooded with honourable accolades such as a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, an Order of Canada and an induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, to name a few. With 21 Paralympic medals to her name, including 14 gold and 26 world records, the awards to honour her career were more than deserving.
After building a legacy as one of the greatest wheelchair racers in Paralympic history, and becoming not only one of the most talented Canadian athletes of all-time, but one of the most beloved, Petitclerc did everything she wanted to do in the sport — or so she thought.
It is almost as if winning was not enough. Dominating the world wheelchair racing circuit over the course of a 16 year career was fulfilling on a personal level, but her drive and personable nature left her in a position to give so much more. That’s when the role of Chef de Mission — a position that seems to be a natural fit for her — came calling.
“It’s been very rewarding on many levels and exciting at the same time,” said Petitclerc, “Getting a feeling of contributing and giving back to the Paralympic movement that gave me so much when I was an athlete.”
Leading a group of approximately 155 athletes from different backgrounds, with different strengths, who have overcome different obstacles upon their journey is no easy task. The one thing each of these athletes will have in common when they fly to Rio de Janeiro is they can look for guidance and inspiration from their ambassador.
“What I would want to see as Chef, which is always a challenge, is we get there with 16 different sports, and everybody has their own sports culture and teammates, but build up one team, and that is Team Canada, no matter what you did before,” said Petitclerc. “To build that team culture where everyone is cheering for everybody, I think makes a big difference, and that is one of the goals that I have.”
On top of her leadership position among Canadian athletes competing in the 2016 Games is her advocacy for the Paralympic movement and desire to embody a structure that
is committed to high performance. Having been invested in the international sports community for more than two decades, the Saint-Marc-des-Carrières, Que. native has seen improved opportunities for athletes living with disabilities to train in high performance environments and gain access to sports science.
Earlier this year, BMW revolutionized the Paralympic experience for American athletes competing in Rio and invested in their chances of bringing home medals by redesigning the principles of the racing wheelchair. They used 3D printing and design to custom fit every racing wheelchair to fit the body of its racer. The technology went a step further with the introduction of carbon fibre, as opposed to the previously used aluminum, to lighten the weight and improve energy efficiency for the athletes. This is the attention and effort from third parties that Paralympic ambassadors crave and the athletes deserve.
Petitclerc, whose positive energy is admirable and contagious, believes the future is bright.
“I’ve seen some really good things in the Paralympic movement, here in Canada but internationally as well. It’s becoming very, very competitive and I like that,”said she. “I feel the athletes more than ever have access to high performance environments and sport science and this is absolutely great. I think it will make a huge difference. In the years to come, I think there will be more energy and more money invested in the technology and in the biomechanics for the Paralympic athletes.”
Canada’s Chef de Mission also noted that the efforts for disabled athletes cannot stop there.
“I think in Canada, we are really trying to figure out how we can do this better when it comes to Paralympians. Whether it’s kids with disabilities, how can we challenge them, exposing them to sports, how do we keep them in a sports environment. We have been struggling with that forever. But I think that now, more than ever before, we recognize that unless we invest time, and education, and funds in developing the next generation, we will not be successful as a Paralympic country.”
Having the Canadian ambassador of sport as a former athlete is a relatively new trend. In 2008, the title belonged to Debbie Low, the executive director of Paralympic Ontario, for the Beijing Games. Dr. Gaetan Tardiff was appointed to this role in London after being involved as a volunteer for the Paralympics in a medical capacity for seven years. This role is not unfamiliar territory for Petitclerc, though, having served as the Chef de Mission for Canada at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. With no disrespect to the two tremendous advocates of the Paralympic movement mentioned above, having someone who has dealt with the pressure that comes with the Summer Games is an asset for every athlete.
Brent Lakatos is currently the number one ranked T53 wheelchair short-distance racer in the world, another position Canada’s Paralympic ambassador is very familiar with. He started working with Petitclerc in 2005 when they were both training under head coach Peter Eriksson during the ladder part of Chantal’s career. From a fellow athletes perspective, she is the ideal role model.
“She is just a really good person. She is professional in everything that she does. She is an amazing athlete, and yet she is really kind, happy and excited about everything,” said Lakatos. “Just watching her compete at the Beijing Games I just learned so much about how to handle the competition, the pressure, the other athletes and that sort of thing.”
Not only does she possess the passion and desire to connect with the athletes on a personal level, she knows what it feels like to deal with the stresses of being labelled as a gold medal hopeful. But when you ask her about pressure, for athletes who have been training for most of their lives for this moment, dealing with it becomes a second nature.
“Pressure is not negative. Athletes are used to working with pressure and they do put pressure on themselves. It needs to be managed for sure and it needs to be good pressure,” said Petitcerc. “I think the only way to cope with it is really to know what you want to accomplish as an athlete, as a person, and then be able to always come back to that and come back to why you’re doing it.”
With the opening ceremonies for the 2016 Paralympic Games set to get underway on Sept. 7, Petitclerc will be one of the first Canadians to embark for Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 31, in time to welcome the first wave of athletes that arrive. It has been an extraordinarily busy year for the Canadian Senator, public speaker, author, Right to Play ambassador, and Chef de Mission. She made eight planned appearances across the country to build relationships with athletes and media in an effort to increase the exposure for the Canadian team. She has been the voice of the official team announcements alongside the Canadian Paralympic Committee to formally welcome the newest members of Team Canada.
Her final task, will be to support each and every athlete through the unparalleled triumphs and crushing disappointments that await them in Brazil.
Photo Credit: Canadian Paralympic Committee