The glint of U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson’s gold shoes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics played a significant role in Priscilla Gagne’s dream of becoming an athlete on the world’s largest stage.
Gagne, who has retinitis pigmentosa, a visual impairment affecting her central vision, was just 10 years old during the 1996 Atlanta Games. Standing very close to the TV, she could make out the white stripes of the track lanes, the “whitish blobs” of runners going around it, and athletes’ faces during close-ups. Her aunt pointed out that Johnson wore gold spikes.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he’s gutsy to wear gold running shoes. I hope he wins just because that would be horrible if he didn’t and he wore gold shoes,”’ Gagne said with a laugh. “That was my little 10-year-old thought, and he won (both the 200 and 400 metres). And seeing the smile on his face.
“So that inspired me. That was my start. I thought I’d go to the Olympics as a runner.”
Gagne’s introduction to Paralympic sports when she was 15, however, was a game-changer, she said. And now one of the world’s finest Para judo athletes, Gagne will carry Canada’s flag into Tuesday’s opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics.
The 35-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., is ranked No. 2 in the world at 52 kilograms. She finished fifth in her Paralympic debut in Rio in 2016, and in 2018 became the first Canadian woman to climb the medal podium at the Para judo world championships, winning bronze.
Gagne couldn’t march in the Rio opening ceremony or the two Parapan Am Games in which she competed and won silver. The ceremonies always conflicted with having to make weight.
So she was already thrilled at the prospect of marching. Carrying the flag, she said, is a huge honour.
“For me it represents unity within diversity, it represents strength and resilience, and it represents a hope for something greater than what we have,” she said. “I really hope that for kids living with disabilities, this inspires them to never stop dreaming, to never listen to somebody who tells them no, and to stand together with people who believe in them.”
Gagne, who will have her training partner and guide Laurie Wiltshire alongside her at Olympic Stadium, said the past 19 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic have been tough on Paralympic athletes. Able-bodied judo athletes on Canada’s national team trained together in a tight bubble, but Gagne and another Paralympic athlete were excluded.
“That really hurt,” said Gagne, who lives and trains in Montreal. “It brought back a lot of times from my childhood, feelings from when I was a kid and just trying to be like the other kids. I thought we had grown so much as a society, we’ve put so much work into it, and everyone’s been so supportive and open to integrated sport, and I thought we had come so far.
“I understand that people get put in positions where they make decisions they don’t want to have to make, and there’s lots of red tape and different funding, but it still hurt a lot. And that made it very challenging.”
Gagne said her training was interrupted until May of this year when she was able to travel to Texas to train. She then travelled to Lethbridge, Alta., and Calgary. She was warmed by the support she received in all three locations.
“I think if I hadn’t experienced the hardship in the beginning that maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated the depth of their generosity and their kindness,” she said.
Stephanie Dixon, Canada’s chef de mission for Tokyo, called Gagne in Montreal to deliver the news she’d been chosen flag-bearer. Gagne was out walking her dog at the time, a shepherd-lab mix who’s 14-and-a-half and “very slow, so it took a while to get home to call her back,” Gagne laughed.
“There was no one immediate thought, it was like a whirlwind of thoughts. It’s excitement. It’s nostalgia. It’s everything. And rewarding too because of the year that we went through, and just the struggles we had with training and with bureaucracy, and that kind of thing. It was so nice to have this gift. That’s what it is, it’s a gift.”
Dixon said Gagne’s passion and excellence “on and off the mat is immeasurable and this honour 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 lead the way,” added Dixon, who captured 19 Paralympic medals in swimming.
Like the Olympics that closed two weeks ago, Gagne will lead a small contingent of Canadian team athletes into the stadium due to COVID-19 concerns. But there will be a viewing party at the athletes’ village, Dixon said.
Canada has 128 athletes, including guides, competing in 18 sports in Tokyo.
The Games close on Sept. 5.