Canadian Sport Institute Ontario believes in the power of sport, and its’ globally unifying principles. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been forced to adapt to a new normal and come together to support one-another in a variety of ways. This 4-part article series, written by award-winning sport journalist David Grossman, was designed to highlight and showcase our resilient athletes, and the practitioners who were instrumental in their return to sport.
“I have learned that there are always barriers. The key is to keep pushing forward.”
- Renée Foessel
By David Grossman
Some would use the word courage. Others would choose determination.
Watch Renée Foessel perform as an athlete, and you witness spectacles of glory. Talk to her, and you’re easily inspired.
When you get right down to it, there’s a spark in her positive outlook and approach to tackling challenges – and she’s had a few.
Foessel was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. The medical term is hemiplegia, a paralysis on one side of the body, and causes issues with muscle control, and weakness. For Foessel, it is more of a lower function of motor control and weakness on the right side of her body.
A visionary, Foessel is one who follows her instincts. Her personal promise is to pursue - and be the best.
She’s fun to be around. Some people know her as a professional working in the criminal justice world. Others go back to those teen years when Foessel was chosen Most Valuable Player in track and field at her alma mater, St. Marcellinus Secondary in Mississauga.
As an athlete, when the adrenalin is up, stand back and give her space.
Renee in training. Photo: Toronto Star
It was at age 10, that Foessel took a liking to the sport of track and field. For her, it was the throwing events - shot, discus, and javelin. Back then, she used a wheelchair for travelling a long distance, and her dexterity was below average. She is an ambulatory competitor, described as an athlete has a permanent orthopedic, neuro-muscular, visual, or another physical disability.
It didn’t take long for her to take a liking to the independence of sport - and taking ownership.
Cruisers Sports, the Peel/Halton-based club she joined while attending St. Gregory Elementary School, has been a huge bonus. She’s still a member of a wonderful organization that embraces sport and recreational activities, which enhances the quality of life for individuals with physical disabilities.
Foessel progressed rapidly, focussing more on the discus, and has competed at many national and international events. You may have heard of some of them: the Parapan American Games, the Para Athletic World championships and the 2016 Paralympic Games. Emblazoned in the red and white of Canada, Foessel has done quite well despite little or no attention from mainstream media.
She is currently ranked third in the world in the F38 classification. It’s a World Para Athletics category that focuses on athletes with a mild-to-moderate impairment in one or more limbs.
For Foessel, there is no epic comeback. What you see is what you get – a time to savor a journey. Next up, she’s fixated and fully commited on the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Renee performing a discus throw at Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Photo: Canadian Paralympic Committee
“If I look back, never would I have expected to have achieved so much through sport and in life and to be so privileged to experience that special feeling, the pride of representing Canada,” said Foessel. “I hope that I can be a role model for others with, and without, disabilities.”
Foessel is very similar to other athletes – and able to compete able-bodied. Many, regardless of the sport, desire to dominate at their specialty event. This past year, she – like thousands of others around the world – have had to deal with a mammoth setback. The world-wide pandemic shuttered a great deal in 2020 – even delaying what many call the world sports spectacle.
Foessel has adjusted and, if things go her way, could be on the verge of obtaining celebrity attention and success through sport. She’s already established that in Canada.
Not one to brag, Foessel lets performance do the talking.
Her biggest sports highlight came at the 2016 Paralympic Games placing fourth in the F38 discus throw. Her most memorable sport experience was at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games earning three medals. A gold was in the discus. She had a silver in the shot put, and completed the jewellery grab, with a bronze in the javelin. All the hoopla came with her family enthralled by her performances.
More recently, it was 2019 when Foessel recorded something special. She threw the discus, a metal circular disk, for a personal best 33.37 metres. That occurred far from home. Try the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates as Dubai hosted the World Para Athletics Championship. Just as amazing, is that Foessel beat her own Canadian record four times in the same event.
With Foessel thriving, a horrible feeling was about to occur.
Recalling a nice Spring evening in Barrie, Foessel gulped at news of a widening trail of COVID-19 cases. Then, the piercing blow when the Canadian Olympic Committee announced a halt to the Olympics and Paralympics. Other countries would follow.
Foessel said her initial reaction was one of devastation.
Renee with her medals, and training at the Athletics Hub East. Photos: Toronto Star
“I had been working very hard for four years, just like other athletes, focussed on doing well on the world stage – and then (the pandemic) started,” she said. “You can never expect anything like that to happen and for it to take a huge toll on the entire world. I was initially very emotional and worried. I had a very hard time, but I knew it wasn’t just me.”
Supremacy at the highest level was shelved for the time being. What took over were thoughts about whether she get over the pause in action, being overwhelmed and keep up her health for another year.
With COVID restrictions preventing her from commuting to the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO) site at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, Foessel turned to what she called some “phenomenal on-line resources” that included, and helped with, connections to specialists, mental health and academic stimulation.
“I am so excited to push forward, and the support received has been fantastic,” said Foessel, making the adjustment from pandemic to the podium. “I have learned that there are always barriers. The key is to keep pushing forward, head down, chin up. I’m also a sponge – soaking up every bit of advice ariound fitness, nutrition, training and more.”
In terms of optimism, one that would nearly be derailed by a pandemic, there was never a question about commitment. One who knows is Dr. Sari Kraft, a physician working with an integrated support team, and also overseeing more than 20 track and field athletes at the Athletics Canada National East Training Centre located in Toronto.
Renee in discus throw event, Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Photo: Canadian Paralympic Committee
“I knew about (Foessel) as a para-thrower but didn’t actually see her perform until Dubai,” said Dr. Kraft, a member of the preventive care team that also deals with nutrition, performance and injury prevention. “She’s been very good at seeking advice, pro-active and contacts me if concerned or needs advice.”
Ken Hall also knows a great deal about the emergence of Foessel, her motivation, being engrossed in routines, and developing an inimitable creativity and desire.
“I met her as a six-year old when she joined our club, tried sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball, and four years later, I knew she tried the throwing events in track and field,” said Hall, her personal coach and Field Events coach at Cruiser Sports. “I remember telling her to try it. She didn’t need a second reminder. She’s darn good, very responsive to direction and has a great attitude.”
Bright, congenial and quick-witted, Foessel has benefitted from many resources and staff. She remains persistent on building strength and perfecting technique. In the grand scheme of things, confidence and hard work, has her focus on ascendancy and achievement.