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Chantal Petitclerc

A study in strength, courage, and passion

By Jason Santerre

At the tender age of 13, Chantal Petitclerc lost the use of her legs. She did not withdraw from life. She embraced every day. A stubborn nature, competitive spirit, and strong support system helped her push past any restraints of disability.

“We were visiting friends. There was an abandoned barn on the property,” she recalls. “We took off the door to make a ramp for our bikes. We tried lifting it but it fell on me, fracturing my spine.” After months of rehab, she took on her first real challenge: living a normal life. “It took a few years of adjusting to a wheelchair and living with a disability. It was the 1980s, a different time.” And yet, even as a teenager, when her peers experienced wavering self-confidence at best, she felt she could do anything.

The next challenge was college. She got serious about track and field competition. This is when Chantal became Ms. Petitclerc, a force to be reckoned with. She soared to the top of her field, attending her first paralympic games in Barcelona in 1992 where she won two bronze medals. Bronze only fueled her fire. Five Paralympic Games later, the numbers speak for themselves: 21 medals (14 gold), and still the world record holder at 200m and 400m.

And she’s received every prize the nation has to offer, from the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s Athlete of the year to being named a Companion of the Order of Canada. Of course, most recently Ms. Petitclerc was named to the Canadian Senate. “It wasn’t part of the plan,” she says, “but the more I thought about it the more I saw it as a platform to advocate the importance of sports and give a voice to persons living with disability.”

Setting goals and achieving them is modus operandi for an athlete. Ms. Petitclerc doesn’t see why her time in Ottawa will be any different. “With athletics, after so many years of commitment and dedication, you come to realize how huge an accomplishment winning gold is. But that’s quantitative,” she says. “Doing what I wanted to do while remaining the person I wanted to be, that was very important. Accomplish your goals, sure, but you have to be able to look your self in the mirror.”

As for the challenges of being a female athlete, let alone one in a wheelchair, Ms. Petitclerc admits it wasn’t easy. “Finding just one female role model or female mentor, especially in track and field, was impossible,” she says. “Today, teenage girls are six times more likely to give up on sports compared to boys. Women need something different. Female coaches would help, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Part of that work is taking time to speak with girls and young women who approach her on the street. “There are emotional encounters with girls still adapting to life in a wheelchair. They appreciate a few words from someone who can relate,” she says. “And then there are the people without any disability who just want to meet me and say thank you. When other athletes ask me for training tips, it’s an achievement for me because I’m viewed as an equal. That’s the goal, to be equal, and I am.”

Strength Beyond Strength

Three more women, three more tales of triumph

By the spring of 1979, revolution had transformed Iran from a monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to an Islamic republic for reigning Ayatollah Khomeini. Life was about to get austere for anyone used to certain freedoms. Roza Mohammadi was 11 years old in 1979. “I remember several protests, the violence, the tanks in the street just rolling over people, and the hospitals and stores being ransacked. It was scary,” recalls Ms. Mohammadi with 37 years of hindsight.

In 1980, Roza and her brother bid farewell to their extended family and made their way toward neighbouring Pakistan. “My parents had arranged for us to be smuggled out, toward Karachi. We only had the clothes on our backs.”

That first night, the youngsters slept in a rat-infested warehouse just over the border. In Karachi, abandoned by their contact, they were taken in by people who were not the kindest of souls. “We were slaves, basically,” she says. “We did all their menial tasks and were never allowed to leave the house.”

But one day, there was a fateful knock at the door. Roza’s mother and younger sister stood in the doorway. Rescue. “I knew if I could survive the last seven months, I could survive anything.”

The family then scraped enough money together to get to Spain, the only country they could enter without visas. As they waited for a chance to fly to Canada, food became scarce. “I would visit the mercado at night and rummage through bins for food the vendors had tossed out,” she says.

Eventually, the family purchased fake passports. “I had a passport for a married Belgian woman with a child. So an acquaintance and I posed as my little sister’s parents. I was 15 years old.”

Even after making it to Canada, there were still hurdles. “I had to marry this young man (who had posed as her husband) to make it right with my mother. I was going to school at night. I kept a home while cleaning other homes to make ends meet. I remember kids at school talking about kid stuff, and there I was already a woman.”

Thirty-seven years later, Ms. Mohammadi is a property owner, a professional, and a mother of three young women of her own. “I’m proud of my kids and I’m proud as hell to be Canadian. I wasn’t born here. I had to earn my freedom.”

Nalie Agustin, a former television personality and current project manager for Leucan, says she’s most proud of her work as a blogger at www.nalie.ca. It’s a platform to share her candid, heartfelt experiences with other people living through cancer. Ms. Agustin was only 23 when she discovered a lump in her breast.

“The two weeks I spent waiting for biopsy results were the most torturous of my life,” she says today. “The moment I received the results I felt a rush of adrenaline. I jumped into the ring to fight. First came chemo, then surgery to remove the breast, and then radiation.”

Ms. Agustin says the 16 rounds of chemotherapy were tough, but the four rounds of AC (a cocktail of chemo drugs) known as the “red devil” were the toughest to endure: days of nausea, low white blood cell counts, fatigue, mouth sores, hair loss, and general pain. The toll on both body and mind was tough, but body image takes a hit, too, as hair loss kicks in. It was traumatic for a woman in her prime. “Dead hair, to me, equals death,” she says. “It was like cancer was stamped on my forehead.”

And then, one day, enough was enough. Ms. Agustin says she decided to share her story via a blog in order to help others get through their own journey. “I feel like I make a difference in the lives of others by being myself and sharing everything, the good and the bad.”She says that by beating cancer she shed fear, embraced life, and evolved from a scared 23-year-old girl to a confident 27-year-old woman.

Since its independence in 1962, Burundi has struggled to emerge from ethnic-based civil war and extreme poverty. Even today, the life expectancy for both men and women is 50 years old. Marguerite, a woman who escaped the horrors of her homeland, agreed to share her story, in her own words, as long as she could keep her anonymity:

“I arrived in Canada in April, 2008. I left Burundi for Kenya where I stayed six years as a refugee. Once in Canada, it took me five years to become a citizen. It was a great feeling because I knew I now had rights, security, and safety. I left my country due to insecurity. In Burundi, people are killed every day. Families are displaced. Women and girls face intimidation, rape, and all kinds of torture you can’t imagine. I was one among many victims.

“I chose Canada because a miracle happened. My brother, who I didn’t know was alive, contacted me after 10 years. He was in Canada and he sponsored me. Of course, I didn’t have money. I had lost almost everything during the war. I had some clothes and my high school diploma.

“Today, I am a nurse, which is my calling. My mother, whom I lost when I was five, is my inspiration. I was told she died of an infection because services were unavailable. At a young age, I decided to help sick people. I feel at peace because now I live in a peaceful country. Sometimes I feel paranoia, like the past is coming back to haunt me. One day I took everything from my past and put it in a box. I threw it away. It allowed me to start a new life.”

 

Summer 2016, Vol 8 N°3

Current Issue

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Spring 2017
Vol 9 N°2

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