On Priscilla Gagné’s seventh birthday, she rode freely on a two-wheeled bicycle for the first time. Her father, Jean-Charles, cycled ahead of her so she could see him and follow.
The same year, he taught her how to catch a baseball. Initially, he had to throw it right into her mitt. Soon after, Priscilla made the softball team — as a catcher.
“She never stopped,” said Jean-Charles, speaking of her youthful exuberance. “Even if she hurt herself, she’d just get up and do it again.”
However, these were no regular father-daughter escapades. Priscilla has retinitis pigmentosa, which has caused her eyesight to deteriorate gradually since early childhood.
“I never stopped her doing what she wanted to do because of her sight,” says her father, who works as a haulage truck driver.
Fast forward 20 or so years of doors opening and closing for her, Priscilla Gagné is soon to be accompanied by her father on another first — the 2016 Paralympic Games.
In June, Gagné was named to the Canadian para-judo team for the Rio Games, where she will compete on the biggest stage for the first time in a sport she took up only at age 23. For the Montreal-based athlete, now 30, Rio will be her first major Games, but the sport has already taken her full circle.
“I remember when I was 10-years old, an artist in downtown Montreal asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up,” recounts the Granby, Que. native. “I said I wanted to be in the Olympics so he drew a picture of me running with the Olympic flame.
“Last year I was invited to run with the Parapan Am flame and this year I’ll be competing in the Paralympic Games. It’s pretty incredible.”
Gagné grew up in Sarnia, Ont., after moving from Granby when she was three. Her father remembers the transition from bicycle to rollerblades, when he was unable to keep a watchful an eye on his increasingly daring daughter because he didn’t have his own skates. He chuckles picturing Priscilla doing a 360 because she didn’t know how to brake properly.
“She wanted to succeed so much,” he says. “To be like the other kids.”
Later, at high school in Brantford, Ont., wrestling proved to be Gagné’s first sporting love before the draw of Bible College took her across the border to Broken Arrow, Okla. There she focused on her running, mostly long-distance and cross country although a leg injury put a halt to most of that. Her roommate there was a personal trainer, who insisted on training Gagné for her sporting speciality.
“We had a lot of wrestling matches and some of them lasted three, three-and-a-half hours,” says Gagné. “Our poor neighbours that lived below us. That was probably one of the best years of my life.”
However, on her return to Canada, Gagné decided she wanted to throw herself back into serious competition. With wrestling for visually impaired athletes not available beyond the high-school level, she tried the exclusively para-sport of goalball (a team game designed specifically for blind athletes), and even got on the national development team, but it wasn’t the right fit.
“It just wasn’t combative enough for me,” says Gagné, whose high school best friend Whitney Bogart will play on the Canadian goalball team in Rio. “I missed the combative part of sport.”
Enter Robert Sing. A former training partner of Canadian Olympic judoka Brad Farrow, Sing has spent over 40 years teaching judo at the YMCA in Gagné’s adopted hometown of Sarnia, at the southern tip of Lake Huron, on the Canada-United States border. In 2009, he received a call from Judo Ontario asking if he would introduce a young athlete to the sport.
“I got her started – established a base for her, an idea of how the game is played,” says the 63-year-old.
To Sing, Gagné’s wrestling skills and background were both more than apparent on first impression.
“She’s quite a scrapper, quite aggressive. A tough girl,” he remembers thinking. “She just explodes… look out!”
For Gagné, who describes her training for Rio as being as much mental as physical, the transition was far from seamless, but she eagerly took to learning new techniques.
“My first day, I absolutely fell in love with it,” says Gagné. “It’s similar to wrestling but you can do things like choke and arm-lock, which you cannot do in wrestling.
Seven years later, despite competing at the highest level with a first-degree black belt, Gagné is still a little rough around the edges.
“I don’t know if I have a style. I’m not naturally technical,” says Gagné, who competes in the B1:52 kilo class in para-judo. “It’s not as beautiful to the eye but I try to get in there and get the job done.”
Gagné will be joined in Rio this September by coach Andrzej Sadej. The Ottawa native took the reins of the Paralympic program two years ago in addition to his role as sports director at Judo Canada.
Sadej, who also coaches the Olympic judokas, first met Gagné three years ago, while training at the famed Takahashi Dojo in Ottawa’s West End, which Priscilla’s father encouraged her to attend when she moved to the capital city in search of work.
“From the beginning it was clear that she had an athletic ability that is very unusual for able-bodied athletes, yet alone someone who is blind.”
Gagné is classified as a blind athlete not visually impaired. Sadej says it has been a pleasure to work with an athlete with a, “completely new perspective on what they do, and how they do it.”
“It’s extremely easy to work with Priscilla,” he said. “The way she approaches training is very mature. She is extremely coachable.
“Gritty definitely, but at the same time I think she has style. She wants to win and she’s very aggressive in her approach. She’s dealing with opponents who are older, who rely much more on their experience.”
Having medaled in world cup events this year in addition to picking up a silver at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto last summer, Gagné is determined to put on more than just a show for both of her parents who will travel to Rio to support during competition.
“My ultimate goal is to win every fight,” says Gagné. “To do the best that I can to make that happen and to have no regrets no matter what the outcome is.”
Sadej would not be surprised if his student met what he refers to as “our goals.”
“She performed over the past two years in competition way above her theoretical capacity.”
Sing thinks she will give her more experienced rivals “their money’s worth.” For Gagné’s father, nothing surprises him about his daughter’s success on the judo mat.
“She’s always been a little bit stubborn in that if you tell her not to do that, she’s going to find a way to do it,” says Jean-Charles. “Maybe she’s going to go around something but she’s going to try it.”
While a self-proclaimed risk taker like her father and her brother Josh, who taught her how to jump off a bike ramp, Gagné won’t be leaving anything to chance come September in Brazil.
“I often visualize in my head what the venue might look like, what the mats might look like, my opponents, everything,” says Gagné. “Before I get there, I’ve already been there in my head.”
From roughhousing and wrestling with her older brother in her parent’s basement, where the artist sketch of her running with the Olympic torch now lies, Gagné has in some ways been preparing for the upcoming battles in Brazil all her life.
“She always liked fighting with her brother and her brother’s friend,” says her father. “At school, her brother would always protect her, but he always knew she could protect herself.”
Photo credit: Canadian Paralympic Committee