For Canadian judo para-athlete Priscilla Gagné, winning a silver medal at the Tokyo Paralympics is about more than taking home a piece of fancy hardware.
“To me, it’s such a symbol of hope or faith to just persevere and endure,” she said in a phone interview Friday after finishing second in the 52-kilogram category.
“You want it for yourself and you also want it for the people who’ve invested so much time and energy and emotion. To be able to give it to yourself and to them, you can’t ask for more.”
Gagné always knew climbing the podium in Tokyo would be tough, but training during the COVID-19 pandemic proved nearly impossible.
Shut out of training with Canada’s able-bodied judo athletes, the 35-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., had to travel to Texas, then Lethbridge, Alta., and Calgary to prepare for the Games.
“It was really hard emotionally, physically,” said Gagné, who has a visual impairment called retinitis pigmentosa that affects her central vision. “There was a lot more, emotionally at least, that went into training for this one than for Rio.
“To be able to bring home a silver after all of that is so rewarding.”
The Canadian faced Algeria’s Cherine Abdellaoui in the gold-medal bout. The pair had met twice before, including at the Rio Games in 2016 where Gagné lost to Abdellaoui and finished fifth in her Paralympic debut.
On Friday, the Algerian tossed Gagné on her back with a sacrifice throw to secure the gold.
“She’s much quicker than I remember her. Much faster and dynamic,” said Gagné, who was ranked second in the world at the start of competition.
Along with her silver medal, Gagné will be taking special memories home from Tokyo after being selected to carry the Canadian flag in the opening ceremony on Tuesday.
The Canadian contingent was limited owing to COVID-19 restrictions, Gagné said, and she was the only athlete in the group.
“It was a beautiful experience,” she said. “For me, it was such a privilege to attend because of the small numbers. So I just kept picturing Team Canada’s delegation and, if they were with me, how they’d be cheering, what they’d be screaming I was just walking thinking of them and walking for them.”
Track cyclist Kate O’Brien also captured silver on Friday. She was second in the women’s C4-5 500-metre time trial in 35.439 seconds. Kadeena Cox of Great Britain took gold in 34.812 seconds.
O’Brien said Friday’s race was harder than she had anticipated.
“I felt like the start was pretty good and then the last half-lap, I just didn’t quite have it in me,” said the 33-year-old Calgarian. “But that’s okay. And it’s kind of the first time in my sporting career that I realized my best was that today. And it wasn’t a gold medal-winning best but that’s okay because I did what I could today and that’s an amazing feeling.”
O’Brien was making her Paralympic debut after competing in the Rio Olympics in 2016. A life-threatening crash during training in 2017 left her with a number of serious injuries, including a major head injury and epilepsy.
O’Brien knows it’s nerve wracking for her loved ones to see her back on the track after the accident, but said they’ll be proud of her silver medal.
“As an athlete, you’re always striving to be the best,” she said. “But when I think about the fact that I wasn’t necessarily supposed to walk or speak or ride it sort of blows my mind that I’m back on the track and doing the sport that I love and have so much support. I didn’t ever see this happening.”
Canada had six medals at the end of Friday’s competition, including four silver and two bronze.
Swimmers Danielle Dorris and Camille Bérubé nearly added to the haul, finishing just off the podium in the women’s 200-metre individual medley SM7.
Dorris, an 18-year-old from Moncton, N.B., touched in three minutes 3.16 seconds, five-hundredths of a second behind bronze medalist Tiffany Thomas Kane of Australia (3:03.11). Bérubé was fifth in 3:03.91.
Canada’s women’s wheelchair basketball squad defeated Japan 61-35 on Friday. Kathleen Dandeneau led the Canadians with 19 points and nine rebounds.
The men’s team dropped a 77-73 overtime decision to Turkey.
Meanwhile, Brazil beat Canada 3-2 in women’s seated volleyball and Canada downed New Zealand 51-36 in wheelchair rugby.