Para-canoe makes its debut with a duo of Canadians

Youth and experience on the water in Rio

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil. — Two Canadian para-canoe athletes may have different views of the Paralympics, but their goals this week are the same.

Erica Scarff, 20, and Christine Gauthier, 46, were part of the sport’s debut on Wednesday morning at Lagoa, and both qualified for Thursday finals and a chance at medals.

RIO DE JANEIRO - 14/9/2016: Christine Gauthier competes in the Women's KL2 Canoe Sprint at the Lagoa Stadium during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee)
RIO DE JANEIRO – 14/9/2016: Christine Gauthier competes in the Women’s KL2 Canoe Sprint at the Lagoa Stadium during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee) (Photo by Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Gauthier, who has represented Canada since the 2008 para-canoe worlds, has seven top-two finishes since then. Though the Paralympics are the big stage, it does not necessarily follow they have more value.

“It’s exciting, but like I’ve said before, for us since 2008 it has been the world championships,” she said, sitting on the dock relaxed after winning her semi-final. “It is a much viewed platform being at the Paralympics, but the competition and the races (at worlds) are not less important to me personally.”

In 2010, while Gauthier was on the water winning her first gold, Scarff was 14 and just two years past having her leg amputated after a battle with bone cancer. For the former competitive gymnast her first Paralympics are just a little sweeter.

“This is my fourth international race and a lot of it is the same being at the Paralympics,” she said, after her third place finish in the semi-final.

“And a lot of it is just a lot more special and you know that there is a lot more people watching, and a lot of people helping you out a lot more, so its really awesome to have our race to be recognized by the Paralympics and the world.”

A stage this big could pose nerve problems for such an inexperienced competitor, and the Mississauga native has definitely had her struggles with them.

“This year in Germany I qualified the boat for the Paralympics,” she said. “Over there I was really nervous and I thought about the race all year and I built it up so much in my head.

“But since I’m here at the Paralympics, that was my goal to make it in the finals so I wasn’t stressed because I knew that negatively impacted my performance in the past so luckily I was able to control my nerves.”

In the crowd to ease those nerves were her parents, two people who have supported her through this entire journey and she was adamant that her success is just as much theirs as it is hers.

“Its awesome to have my parents here,” she said. “They aren’t athletes themselves, but my mom said when she was younger even though she wasn’t an athlete she always dreamed of coming to the Olympics and now she gets to make it as a parent which is just as important as an athlete.”

Having her parents in Rio is important not only because they are family but because her coach Mari Ellery couldn’t make the trip.

In preparation for this week, Scarff made the trip to Montreal where Gauthier, a Canadian army veteran, trains, to get familiar with the coach and other athletes she would be competing with. The older Montreal paddler had very practical advice for the speedy new face on the paddling scene.

“For Erica, and anybody else coming up, it is very intimidating to start paddling,” she said. “With the balance issue, it is challenging and people don’t give it enough time. So it is time in the water and good surroundings that are the keys to paddling.”

Scarff knows the kind of experience her teammate has is a great resource.

“Having Christine around is awesome,” Scarff said. “She knows her way around everything, if there’s something I’ve never experience before she’s probably experienced it and I can go to her and ask her about it.”

The Canadian duo hit the water Thursday morning, Gauthier in the KL2 final and Scarff in the KL3 — both will be looking to grab that elusive first ever para-canoe title and while Gauthier has the experience, the speed that Scarff carries out of the gate is impressive and could just inch her into a spot.