Marissa Papaconstantinou on Paralympic Storytelling, Equal Pay and Mentally Preparing for Paris

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Catch Paralympic sprinter Marissa Papaconstantinou (aka Canada’s Blade Runner) if you can as she jaunts from France to Barbados, picking up fans and souvenirs along the way.

Discipline

Para Athletics T64 100m & 200m

Age

24

Hometown

Toronto, ON

Motto

Ride the wave.

A case of summer camp homesickness almost stopped Marissa Papaconstantinou from realizing how fast she could run. Luckily, the Paralympic sprinter has a knack for seeing things through. On the last day of the national development camp, she gave the 100–metre dash a go and broke the Canadian record at 13 years old (in the T64 category: athletes with the absence of one leg below the knee). At the 2017 World Para Athletic Championships in London, she crossed the finish line despite tearing her hamstring mid–race. After battling her way past injuries to bronze in Tokyo, Canada’s Blade Runner has her sights set on Paris — and Milano Cortina.

July 2, 2024

enRoute Tell us about when you received your first blade at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

Marissa Papaconstantinou I was 12 years old when I first got my blade. I had wanted one for quite some time, but I needed to meet a weight requirement. When I put it on, I felt like I had two feet for the first time. It unlocked a whole new level of mobility that I had never experienced before and opened my world to the possibility of competing for Team Canada at the Paralympics one day.

ER You started out playing sports like soccer and basketball. When did you realize you wanted to pursue track?

MP I started because I liked running; I thought it was fun. I also did long jump at the time, which was also something that really interested me. I was identified by Athletics Canada and invited to a national team development camp. At the end of the camp, I ran a meet and broke the Canadian record in the T64 category. That was the moment I realized I could go beyond just having fun and compete for Team Canada.

ER In 2017, you tore your hamstring halfway through the T64 women’s 200m at the World Para Athletics Championships in London, U.K., but you still crossed the finish line. Later, you called the injury a learning opportunity. What did you take away from the experience?

MP In that moment I was obviously very devastated, but the thought process was just to get up and finish because I had never not finished a race. I had worked so hard to get there for it to all fall apart. I just wanted to finish strong, even though I was in a lot of pain.

It was a lot to learn, both mentally and physically. I experienced a lot of anxiety and pressure in the buildup to that race, and I needed to figure out how to mentally prepare for championship races. Physically, because I was still in high school, I wasn’t lifting weights or doing any of that training just yet. Then I had to learn how to recover from an injury. Knowing how to deal with pain — whether it’s good or bad, and having overall kinesthetic awareness — is so important as an athlete.

So, that’s why I think about the experience as a learning opportunity. Even though a moment was taken from me, I gained something from it. I try my best to look at negatives in life as something I can gain something from and move forward.

ER How did the experience teach you to prepare mentally for big events?

MP I go through a roller–coaster of emotions throughout the season, as I’m sure every athlete does. It’s easy to look at someone and think oh, they make that look so easy. But there’s always a lot going on in the background that you don’t necessarily know about.

For me, it comes in waves, from moments of confidence to moments of panic. One thing that helps is showing up prepared. That’s what leads my confidence to the starting line: Knowing that I've done everything I could to get there.

ER Canadian Paralympians will now receive the same financial rewards as Olympians when they earn medals at the Games. What does this mean to you?

MP For a long time, the Paralympics have been viewed as something secondary to the Olympics. This is a prime way to show that the Paralympics are not an afterthought and that they are appreciated as a professional, high–performance environment where people can be financially recognized for their achievements. I think it’s incredible that every Canadian Paralympian has that opportunity now.

Exterior of the Toronto Metropolitan University
Toronto Metropolitan University   Photo: Eamon Up North/Pexels

ER As a graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University’s sport media program and potential future sports broadcaster, what else would you like to see change?

MP As a person who has experienced the Paralympics, I would like to bring my perspective to mainstream media. There are many para–athletes who have become broadcasters, like Rob Snoek at CBC and Stefanie Reid, who have created amazing coverage for para–sports. Having people with first–hand experience in these positions is first and foremost.

I would love to see more stories being told, too, because currently, we’re not capitalizing on the storytelling opportunities within the Paralympics. When we talk about adversity in sports, para–athletes have to overcome being different and adapt every single day.

ER In a recent Instagram post, you wrote that even though it can sometimes be difficult to “put those bummies on or wear that crop top... your body is beautiful just the way it is.” On harder days, how do you summon self–love and body acceptance?

MP In a sport like track and field, it can be hard. We’re all built so differently, and we all come in different shapes and sizes, whether we’re tall, short, on the leaner side or on the more muscular side like me. It comes down to realizing that I’m not training to look a certain way or provide aesthetics; it’s to make myself as fast and strong as possible.

I try to remind myself that my body goes through changes throughout the season, which is completely normal. We all go through fluctuations: At some points, you’re heavier and at other points, you’re leaner. It can be hard, mentally, to see yourself in the mirror and not be where you would like to be physically. In those moments, I say to myself: You’re also running fast, so why does that matter?

ER Over the years you have mentored numerous aspiring para–athletes at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and beyond. What advice do you share with them?

MP A recurring theme for me is making sure that young kids with disabilities find the things that they love to do. At the end of the day, I do track and field because I genuinely love it. I love to see what I’m truly capable of every single day. You need to have a genuine passion for what you do: Don’t do it because someone told you to or because it looks cool. That spark is what has allowed me to push barriers and go beyond what I thought I could achieve. I want that for every young child with a disability as well.

ER We heard that you have considered competing in winter sports. Will we see you at Milano Cortina in 2026?

MP You might see me there through a different lens. Hopefully I can get more experience in the broadcast space. I would love to take part in the Winter Paralympic Games in some way, shape or form. I’ve always loved skiing, but at this point in my track career, I can’t risk any injuries. Maybe in the future, when I’m done track and have put that behind me.

Marissa Papaconstantinou strikes a sprinter's pose

The Questionnaire

  • Window or aisle? I’m 50/50 on this. If it’s an overnight flight and I need to sleep, I need the window. I’ve got to lean against something. Every other flight, especially during the day, I need the aisle seat. As an athlete, I’m very hydrated. I like to get up and walk around and go to the bathroom.

  • Dream seatmate Such a hard question! Maybe my dog, Myles. Or maybe the Jamaican sprinter Shelly–Ann Fraser–Pryce, just to pick her brain.

  • Favourite souvenir There are two that are tied to my Paralympics experiences. After Rio de Janeiro, we brought home a whole suitcase of Havaianas flip–flops. From Tokyo, we brought home chopsticks.

  • Best travel memory Spending my summers in Greece with my family when I was younger. As a child, I loved how rules went out the window, like staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning and not getting in trouble for it. The beach, the food, singing and dancing with my cousins: Being a kid in Greece was super fun.

  • Weirdest thing in your suitcase It depends on what you define as weird. I’ve got a lot of lacrosse balls and massage guns and recovery boots.

  • Next trip Barbados. I want to have a relaxing vacation without too much going on. I just want to be in a little house on the beach for a week and unplug.