— by Loreen Pindera
Try this: take an elastic exercise band and wrap it tightly around your ankles, so you can’t move your feet. Now, try swimming a length of the pool – no pull buoy allowed.
If you’re like me, you’ll start out OK, but halfway across the pool, your legs will start sinking and, by the time you’ve reached the other end, you’ll be basically treading water, arms only, trying desperately to breathe. Now you’ll have an inkling of what it takes to be Pierre Ouellet.
Ouellet invited me into the pool with him recently at PEPS, the Phys Ed pavilion at Université Laval in Quebec City, where he trains nearly every day. A quadriplegic since he crashed his motocross bike in a race in Rougemont, Que., shortly after his 16th birthday, Ouellet is, quite literally, in a league of his own as a paratriathlete.
He finished 15th in the world in paratriathlon in 2016, after a year plagued by injuries and financial constraints, missing out on qualifying for the Rio Paralympics by just three spots.
No one else on the planet with a spinal cord injury as severe as Ouellet’s has ever competed in paratriathlon at the elite international level. Given the strength, resilience and sheer grit that it takes, that’s no big surprise. “Pierre is such a driven person,” says Luc Morin, a former professional triathlete and a Montreal-based high-performance coach who worked with Ouellet in the lead-up to Rio. “He’s as strong as a bull, both physically and psychologically.”
The testament to that is, with no control of his muscles below his ribcage and with limited use of his fingers, Ouellet still dares to go up against other athletes who, though wheelchair-bound, are more able-bodied than he is. “Pierre’s experience racing was ultimately uncharted territory,” says Morin.
Back at PEPS pool, my own legs now free of constraints, I swim alongside Ouellet, watching how he uses his upper back and his shoulders to propel himself through the water. He swims 100 metres in 1:38, buoyed a little by the neoprene leggings he wears.
Exercise is his medicine and, with his nervous energy, you get the sense that a sedentary life would do him in. A speed demon from the time he first sat on a motocross bike at 12, Ouellet remembers regaining consciousness a few seconds after he crashed. “In my head, I played a film of what the rest of my life would look like, and I couldn’t see anything. I panicked,” he says.
He spent months in a rehab hospital, losing a year of high school. “Psychologically and emotionally, that first year was super-difficult,” he says, “except I hung onto the hope that one day I’d be able to walk again, that I’d get back on a motorcycle and be able to compete.”
It took three years of going to the gym every day and pushing his body to heal to realize that wasn’t going to happen. Ouellet started looking for other ways to get the adrenalin hit that motocross gave him, taking up wheelchair racing with the aim of making it to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
“The year of selection for Greece, I fell and broke my wrist. When I got back into it, I didn’t make the standard.”
Ouellet had been working as an insurance adjuster, but a desk job didn’t suit him. He certified as a massage therapist and offered
his services to Benoît-Hugo St-Pierre, who had just set-up a triathlon junior development training centre in Trois-Rivières, about 90 minutes from Quebec City. By then, he’d given up on wheelchair racing and was into the rave scene – DJing, smoking, doing drugs – “pretty much the opposite lifestyle of an athlete,” he admits.
But he was hanging around with athletes again, and “at one point, my desire to get back into sports returned,” he says.
“Everyone started to laugh,” says Ouellet, when he showed up at St-Pierre’s training camp with his pool gear. But he was serious, and began trading his massage services for St-Pierre’s coaching, the two of them working out how to help Ouellet with his stability in the water and support his lower body as he swam.
“He really worked hard,” St-Pierre recalls. “And it took a lot of organization. When he came to our training camp in Arizona, in 2007, he drove the whole way. He left Quebec City in his car, with all his equipment: his racing wheelchair, his bike, the whole setup. He got there and hit the ground running, massaging the athletes, training with us. Then he turned around and drove all the way back.
“The financial side was always difficult. He needed to raise money to train, and especially at that time for paratriathlon, there was really no money around to support an athlete who was still in the development phase.”
The logistics and cost of travelling with all that gear, not to mention the cost of the equipment itself, posed constant challenges. The price of a high-end time-trial bike pales in comparison with that of a state-of-the-art hand-powered model, and a racing wheelchair starts at $6,000.
There are other costs, as well. Elite events are few and far between and require travelling long distances. “A paratriathlete has to be there at least a week before any event,” says Morin, Ouellet’s friend and former coach. They need to get all the equipment there. They need a van waiting for them at the airport to help them move it. They need to scout the course ahead of time, to make sure the transitions work and to eliminate other obstacles.
For the eight years that he raced on the elite circuit, Ouellet poured as much energy into finding sponsors and raising money to travel and escape snowbound Quebec City to train in the winter in Florida as he did into improving his performance.
“That didn’t give him much time for rest and recuperation,” St-Pierre observes. “And when you are training that hard, you need to rest, too.”
A friend in the U.S. dubbed Ouellet “the Canadian Rooster” – for the shock of hair, dyed bright red at the time, that stands straight up on his head like a rooster’s comb – but the nickname is apt: Ouellet is not afraid to crow
about his accomplishments. Eight times a Canadian paratriathlete champion, twice a world champion in para-aquathon, he still ponders another stab at a Paralympics medal – perhaps Paris in 2024.
His hair is dyed blond these days, and Ouellet is now 41, past the age when most people dream of another chance at Olympic glory. But settling into life as an age-group triathlete is not easy for him.
“I’m not capable of quitting training,” he says. “Not racing at all – I can’t do it. I need to set goals.”
For now, his main goal is increasing the visibility of his sport and trying to get more young people with disabilities to challenge themselves through paratriathlon. For a second straight year, the organizers of the Triathlon de Chambly, a five-year-old event held each June on Montreal’s South Shore, have named Ouellet their honorary president, with the aim of enticing first-timers, wheelchair-bound or not, to try a fast, flat race.
“He came last year and gave us advice on how to plan a course, where to put the transi- tions,” says event director Jacques Gravel. “He is an individual who is generous with his time, who gave us the idea to really pursue this.”
Age-group triathlete Loreen Pindera lives in Montreal. She is an editor with CBC Radio.