Dreaming of Rio
PUNTA GORDA — Pierre Ouellet moves nearly effortlessly through the water of the pool at the South County Regional Park.
He glides across the water, creating little wake and few splashes in the sun-splashed surface.
His shoulders are large and his biceps even bigger. His dark hair is cut into a small but noticeable mohawk. A clenched jaw and stern browline projects a quiet but strong intensity inherent in a world-class athlete.
Nearby, fellow Canadian Charles Moreau prepares to enter the water. Though Moreau’s arms and shoulders rival those of Ouellet’s, the two will never be mistaken for each other. Moreau’s shaved head and tatoo of a blue lizard on his right shoulder blade guarantees that. He quickly and easily slides on a black wetsuit that covers the lower half of his body before tying a band around his legs.
“They make everybody wear one,” says Moreau. “They need to make it fair for people that can still use one of their legs.”
Ouellet and Moreau are not like the other swimmers using the county pool on this hot, April morning. They are para-athletes, specifically paratriathletes. Para-athletes are those that compete with some sort of physical impairment. Competitions are divided into classifications, such as impaired muscle movement, an intellectual disability or impaired vision, to ensure even competiton.
Both Ouellet and Moreau are unable to use their legs. While both at one point had full use of their legs, they haven’t let the change slow their pursuit of athletic excellence.
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As a 16-year-old, Ouellet loved competing in motocross, but an accident during a race cost him the use of his legs.
After the injury, he knew he wanted to stay active — his competitiveness remained — so he competed in track and field. After eight years of training for track events, he decided to take a break, which turned into five years, to start his own massage therapy business.
An introduction to paratriathlons revived his competitive spirit. On the international competition level, sprint paratriathlons consist of a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike (using a handcycle/tandem) and a 5-kilometer run (wheelchair).
“Doing the training each day for only one sport is kind of boring,” said Ouellet with a heavy French-Canadian accent that matches Moreau’s. “It develops multiple talents. … I just fell in love with it.”
Today, the 35-year-old Ouellet, of Quebec City, Quebec, is ranked fifth in the world in the paratriathlon and first in the aquathlon, an event that consists of swimming and wheelchair racing.
Though Ouellet is a fairly recent convert to triathlons, Moreau competed in them as an amateur well before a 2008 car accident stripped him of the use of his legs.
But his fitness came in handy following post-accident surgery. Moreau, now 31, returned to physical activity three months later, just after he graduated from Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. And in another three months, he was back to competing.
“During the process of recovery and getting used to the change in your life, it was really beneficial to have that positive energy,” Moreau said. “The need doesn’t disappear — it was part of your life and part of a certain equilibrium for balance in your life. You have to have that and something else besides that, and it’s just the way I learned to adapt it.”
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While Oullet and Moreau work out in the South County Regional Park pool, their focus is firmly on 2016, when paratriathlon is scheduled to make its debut in the Paralympics in Rio. Since 1988, the Paralympics have been held in conjunction with the Olympics, usually taking place a couple of weeks after the Games conclude.
And while Ouellet and Moreau, who resides in Victoriaville, Quebec, are thrilled with the idea of representing their country on para-athletics’ biggest stage, qualifying presents challenges.
Training and competing around the world requires large amounts of money. Canadian federal funding is extremely limited because the event was not a part of the 2012 Paralympics in London. And while Ouellet and Moreau (a chiropractor) have successful careers, they rely on sponsors, such as Kronobar and Cascades, and friends to help them keep their dreams of Rio alive.
The support of a friend is what brought Ouellet and Moreau to the area. That friend allowed them to stay in a house in North Port cheaply. With South County Regional Park’s pool nearby and easy access to lightly traveled roads to train in the wheelchair and handcycle, the decision to spend approximately six weeks here was easy.
“The races overseas that we have to do causes us to go over budget,” Ouellet said. “When you have a deal like this, it’s very helpful.”
Both said they would return if they can find an inexpensive place to stay.
“It’s gorgeous and it’s quiet, and we’re really close to the water,” Moreau said. “The lifeguards are cool here because they give us big lanes. And the roads are great because people respect us on the roads.”
Ouellet and Moreau departed the area at midweek to travel to Greenville, S.C. for a handcycling race. They plan to take part in the USA Paratriathalon National Championship, which is scheduled for late May in Austin, Texas.
All the training is all with Rio on the duo’s minds; both are beginning to understand what it would mean to wear the red and white colors of the Canadian flag.
“To say I’m going to be representing Canada, that’s a big deal,” Moreau said “I don’t think you can even imagine how it’s going to feel.”
Images via Charlotte Sun