When she was 23, Sarnia’s Priscilla Gagné told local Sensei Bob Sing that she wanted to improve at judo so she could one day attend the Paralympic Games.
“He didn’t doubt me. He spent extra time with me after the YMCA was closed. They had to kick us out, said Gagné, now 35. “He’s a great sensei. He really believed in me.”
Gagné not only made it to the Rio Games in 2016, she capped that achievement on Aug. 24 by winning a silver medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
And after that performance, the St. Patrick’s High School grad was named Canada’s flag bearer for the closing ceremonies.
Her phone “completely blew up” with messages from all around the world, she said.
“It’s pretty exciting; it’s rewarding. A lot of hard work paid off,” she said. “And it’s rewarding for my coach (Andrzej Sadej). He put so much into this.”
Gagné defeated Alesia Stepaniuk of Russia and Ramona Brussig of Germany to reach the gold-medal match, where she lost to Algeria’s Cherine Abdellaoui in the 52 kg final.
“(Abdellaoui) had really good control of my arms and I was hunched over, so she was able to really get a good launch,” Gagné said with a laugh.
“She was just a better Judoka than I was. She’s more technical, more dynamic. She deserved it.”
The medal performance also validated all the funding and support she has received from sponsors, she added.
“It’s really nice to give back to them and say it was worth it.”
Among the post-match text messages was congratulations from Sing and his family.
“I’m very proud,” said Sing, who watched the final. “I’m very honoured and privileged to have taught her. It feels special to teach a student and they excel and come back with a silver medal.”
Gagné, who now lives and trains in Montreal at the Judo Canada National Training Centre, was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a visual impairment that affects her central vision. In sports she’s classified as B1, the most severe level. Her eyesight consists of peripheral “slivers,” she has said.
The rules are adjusted a bit for blind judokas. For example, opponents start with identical grips on each other – one hand on the lapel and one hand on the sleeve. Points are scored when competitors gain complete or partial control of their opponent.
“It’s a really beautiful culture because we always shake hands or hug – no matter who you are – afterwards. At least in my division, everyone always gets a hug.”
Gagné narrowly missed winning bronze at the 2016 Rio Games.
The Sarnia Sports Hall-of-Fame inductee won gold at the 2020 Pan Am Games and bronze at the 2018 World Championships.
A hip injury slowed Gagné last year, but she continued to train through the pandemic.
Being asked to carry the Maple Leaf at the closing ceremonies was “extra special,” she added.
“To walk on behalf of (the nation) is just a great honour, and so humbling.”