In all the solo swimming workouts she did over the past year-and-a-half, Aurelie Rivard pictured her rivals pushing the pace in the lanes on either side.
“Kind of like ghosts,” Rivard said, with a laugh.
Like their Olympic counterparts had done so eloquently a month before them, Canada’s Paralympians are writing their own stories of resilience in Tokyo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
And on Saturday, Rivard, who arrived at the Games with zero chances to race over the last two years, swam to Canada’s first Paralympic gold in spectacular fashion, smashing her own world record in both her heat and the final of the women’s 100-metre freestyle.
It was a day that saw two of Canada’s most decorated Paralympians shine, with wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos winning a silver medal on the track in the men’s 5,000 metres. Canada has eight medals through four days in Tokyo.
Rivard, a 25-year-old from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., pulled away over the final 50 metres on Saturday, touching the wall in 58.14, more than a body length ahead of Chantalle Zijderveld of the Netherlands. Overcome by emotion, Rivard covered her face with a hand before slapping the water with both arms in delight.
“It’s probably one of the greatest swims of my life technically,” Rivard said. “Today is even more special than it should be, winning gold, especially coming from kind of a failure from me on Day 1. I was expecting to win gold (in the 50 free), I’m not going to lie, and I didn’t.
“So, to have been able to go through that and step up and give my best, especially with the year that we’ve had, with absolutely nothing in terms of competitions, it’s almost surreal that this moment is even happening.”
Rivard was third in the 50 freestyle earlier in the Games, a distance in which she won gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, and fought back tears in post-race interviews that day.
Rivard, who was born with an underdeveloped left hand, has seven Paralympic medals and carried Canada’s flag in the closing ceremonies in Rio. But it was tough to gauge how she’d fare in Tokyo after Canada’s tough COVID-19 restrictions meant Rivard had to train alone. For the first few weeks after she returned to the pool, not even her coach was permitted on the deck.
“We did maybe five race simulations (total, during the pandemic), but they weren’t really race simulations,” she said. “It was just me against me, with my coach watching, nobody else. I couldn’t dive at the same time as anybody else. So, it was always about me, always me against me. And so, I had no choice but to kind of forget that, because usually, there’s people in the pool next to me.”
Instead, Rivard focused on small detail-oriented goals, to be better technically in a particular area from one week to the next.
“That’s kind of how I was able to stay motivated otherwise it would have been a lot harder mentally to keep going,” she said.
Rivard recently opened up about her mental health challenges in a Sport Canada video, saying she was bullied in school and battled anxiety, panic attacks and an eating disorder. Her decision to focus on swimming is what got her through.
“The day I let myself … get out of this discomfort, I focused on swimming,” Rivard said in the French video, with English translation. “When I showed up at practice I ignored everything that was going on, it kind of shaped the personality and the person that I am and the athlete too. I don’t think I would have had that strength of character, so I think that yes, sport can save lives.”
Her new focus saw her climb quickly in Paralympic swimming. She won a silver in her Games debut in 2012 in London when she was just 16.
She has four more races in Tokyo — a relay on Sunday and three individual events.
Camille Berube of Gatineau, Que., was eighth in her 100m breaststroke final.
Lakatos’s silver, meanwhile, kicked off the start of a busy Paralympic campaign for the 41-year-old from Dorval, Que.
Lakatos, who has captured eight medals over five Paralympics, is racing every distance in his classification in Tokyo — the 100m, 400, 800, 1,500, 5,000 and the marathon.
On Saturday, he made a move to the front with a couple of laps remaining at National Stadium before Swiss racer Marcel Hug passed him in the final few metres.
“It’s very important not to get boxed in because wheelchairs are so long, it’s almost impossible once you get boxed in to get out, you’d have to go around the back and lose tons of distance, time, work harder to get back into the front,” said Lakatos, whose wife Stefanie Reid is competing for Great Britain in the long jump.
“I was really happy with my position (in front) because … it gives me a clear shot if I wanted to accelerate, I had virtually no worry of getting boxed in. Normally, I think I would have been able to hold on there, but it’s so hot here. And I did hold on quite well, there was only one guy who was able to pass me and (Hug) was in phenomenal shape.”
Lakatos’s silver was his first medal in a long distance race, but he proved his strength in distance racing when he won the London marathon a few months ago.
Lakatos explained wheelchair racers can compete in more races than able-bodied runners because the smaller muscle groups in the arms recover more quickly.
He had a quick turnaround Saturday before he had to line up for the 400 heats on Sunday morning.
“I’ve already had some sandwiches,” he said moments after his medal ceremony. “But any food that I can get in me right now is good. I’m going to get to bed as soon as I can.”
Guillaume Ouellet, a 34-year-old from Victoriaville, Que., was fifth in the men’s 5,000 for T13 athletes with visual impairments.
Elsewhere, Jessica Tuomela was back 21 years after her Paralympic debut in swimming, finishing fifth in the women’s triathlon with guide Marianne Hogan. Tuomela, from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and Montreal’s Hogan had a strong swim and bike, and started the five kilometre running leg in second place before fading to fifth. They crossed in one hour 12 minutes 53 seconds.
“We worked really hard and I think we executed as well as we could,” said Tuomela, who last competed at the Paras in 2008. “The swim was awesome, and the bike was incredible. The run wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be, but this is the Paralympic Games, and it is nothing to shake a stick at. There is room for improvement, and I think that is what is really cool about triathlon — there are always ways to get better.”
Elsewhere, Canada’s Para-dressage team of Lauren Barwick, Winona Hartvikson and Roberta Sheffield were the Day 1 leaders with several countries still to compete.
The Canadians scored 211.699 points to top runner-up Singapore (200.792). Great Britain was third (154.254).
Canada closed out the wheelchair rugby tournament with a 57-49 victory over France to take fifth place. Zak Madell of Okotoks, Alta., led the way with 31 tries.
In a battle between unbeaten countries, Canada’s women’s basketball team dropped a 59-57 decision to Germany. The Canadians roared back from a 10-point deficit over the final six minutes in the thrilling finish.
Kady Dandeneau had a game-high 23 points for Canada (2-1).
”We never stopped playing; we believed. From the beginning to the end, we never stopped believing, so that’s good,” said Canadian coach Marc Antoine Ducharme.
The Canadian men’s team remains winless through three games after a 62-56 loss to Japan.
Five-time Paralympian Patrick Anderson had 22 points and 12 rebounds, while Nik Goncin added 20 points and 13 rebounds for the Canadians, who led most of the way before outscored 24-12 in the fourth quarter.
Canada’s women’s goalball team lost 4-3 to Australia to fall to 1-2. Emma Reinke of St. Thomas, Ont., had two goals.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press