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Chapter 6: Para Canoe Kayak

By David Grossman

Nothing is impossible.

Proof is in Andrea Nelson.

A voracious semi-pro skydiver, Nelson knew something was wrong after making a mistake, several years ago, during a high speed landing near Barrie. The damage was something more significant than a minor injury.

Doctors would inform her that the trauma to her spinal cord, caused by the accident, was catastrophic and left her paralyzed. Her future had changed. As a paraplegic, there would be months of rehabilitation.

Something that no one plans for are serious mishaps.

Always pursuing the passion for excellence and enjoyment in the world of sport, Nelson recognized that things would be different going forward. Aware of her circumstances, a determined and talented woman remained focussed, and persisted.

Nelson also didn’t anticipate that she would be wearing the colors of Canada and competing, two short years after the accident, at the World Canoe Kayak Championships in Hungary. Placing fifth was a huge accomplishment. After a postponement of events in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, she was back at it again – fifth place at the World Cup in May of 2021.

Now, it’s what some call an even bigger show: the Paralympic Games, an international competition designed to emphasize the participants athletic achievements and their disability.

Competing in the KL2 single kayak competition, Nelson will again be focussed on doing her best between September 2 and 4 at the Sea Forest Waterway on Tokyo Bay.

A former Athlete of the Year at Markville Secondary School in Markham, she vividly remembers attending a talent search for paralympic athletes, just three months after her devastating mishap.

“I had wanted to get back to sports and tried a bunch of them,” said Nelson, while very appreciative of the great care received at the Toronto Rehabilitation Lyndhurst Centre. “When I had met (Ryan Blair), he had started a program and I knew the opportunity was there for me to be part of it.”

Blair, a coach for more than 20 years, is the Technical Director for Canoe Kayak Ontario (CKO). His focus is on the Sprint events. When the CKO’s High Performance Program was launched, missing were the elite para athletes. Blair was convinced he had found a competitor after watching Nelson in a variety of activities that included dryland training.

“(Andrea) was one of only a few females, and after having a conversation with her, what I had heard, I liked,” he said. “I was impressed at how determined she was to do well. I knew she had paddled recreationally, and her desire was to be better than just good. She just didn’t base her goal on sport, but on goals in life. That was exactly where we saw things.”

Nelson is not your fist-pumping, uncontrollable woman demanding attention or having dominated the sport for decades. While some would call her a rookie in kayak, her motto is to have fun, try to make the final, inspire people post-injury, and represent her country with dignity.

“Ryan (Blair) is the reason that I am here,” said Nelson, who also praised the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO) and the accessibility it provides for a range of very important resources and staff. “He has been phenomenal. He knows that I am competitive, and that it’s also about fun, enjoying life and showing that you like what you do.

“Like always, I’ll try hard and set realistic goals. The dream might be a medal, but it’s also knowing that I worked hard to make it to be with the best in the world.”

Most elite athletes have professionals who provide enhanced training and support. CSIO and CKO had formed a team of specialists, who had already been in place before Nelson even took her first stroke, as part of CSIO’s Ontario High Performance Sport Initiative (OHPSI). The OHPSI program is designed to support identified athletes and coaches best capable of achieving future international success on senior national teams.

According to Blair, an OHPSI supported technical leader and Advanced Coaching Diploma program grad, many of those have been with her from the beginning and are now part of her inaugural Paralympic Games experience. As for the impact on Nelson’s performance, others would call it nothing short of brilliance.

The supporting cast consists of five members from CSIO and two from CKO. They are CSIO’s James Brough (Director, Performance Pathways), Phil Dunne (Performance Pathways Advisor), Melissa Lacroix (physiology), Kevin Iwasa-Madge (nutrition/strength and conditioning), and Will George (biomechanics and performance analysis). Nancy Botting (physiotherapist) and Marc Creamer (national para team coach) round out the Canoe Kayak Canada contingent.

Brough said he found it fascinating watching the team contribution when it came to supporting the athlete and coach.

“All I knew about (Nelson) was that she was athletic and that we were in this program because we expect people to excel,” said Brough, who oversees the delivery of programming and supporting athletes to international success.

“Andrea has always been open to advice, suggestions and opportunities, and it’s remarkable to see how her performance has grown in such a short period of time. I truly believe that she could challenge for a medal.”

Nelson and Blair have talked about stiff competition in the KL2 category as well as expectations from others.

“For her,  the main goal was to walk again with assistance, then excel in other sports and be an inspiration to others,” said Blair, who praised her mindset and determination. “One day, you might see her competing in alpine skiing. She’s good at that too. It’s all about getting better.”

Blair has worked with a number of very good athletes throughout his career. As for Nelson, he puts her in a category of being one of the best he has tutored.

As for Nelson, a York University graduate in Fine Arts, Theatre Production and Design, her awards have come day by day. Starting with the road to recovery, she is now able to walk with crutches. Talk with her about the glory of a podium finish, her comments fall in the category of cautious optimism.

“I am aware of the people that I am up against and how much more experience they have,” said Nelson, who trains on Lake Ontario and Lake Wilcox. “For me, it has only been two years of competition and interruption by a pandemic. I just want to race well and make the final.”

While learning to navigate the peaks and pitfalls, one thing clearly stands out when speaking to  Nelson. If there is a windfall, it’s the test of determination to move forward – the skill and endurance mixed with patience and good fortune.


David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.