With gold-medal hopes, Para judoka Priscilla Gagné made most of Tokyo Paralympic delay

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With gold-medal hopes, Para judoka Priscilla Gagné made most of Tokyo Paralympic delay
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Team Canada's flag-bearer Priscilla Gagné, left, leads her delegation during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, assisted by training partner Laurie Wiltshire. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images - image credit)
Team Canada's flag-bearer Priscilla Gagné, left, leads her delegation during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, assisted by training partner Laurie Wiltshire. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images - image credit)

Priscilla Gagné treated the curveball thrown by the COVID-19 pandemic to every Olympic and Paralympic athlete as an opportunity.

And now it's go time.

The Para judo star from Sarnia, Ont., took advantage of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games' postponement to get hip surgery to correct a torn labrum.

Fast-forward to present day where she prepares to hit the mat in a semifinal bout at the legendary Nippon Budokan. Medal rounds begin at 3 a.m. ET on Friday.

The No. 2-ranked Para judoka in the -52kg women's category is stronger than ever in her quest for the Paralympic medal she narrowly missed in 2016.

"It's been very opportunistic," Gagné told CBC Sports. "I've always believed preparation time is never wasted time.

She suffered the injury in November 2016, but discovered it two years later. By then, it was too late.

"The [Tokyo qualifiers] were beginning, so I couldn't do anything about it. I had to train with it."

The suddenly blank schedule allowed her to fix the hip issue and take her time with the recovery. Having already qualified for Tokyo, Gagné had no rush to get back to health and could allow her body to heal at its own pace.

It was worth it.

"I have more mobility and strength, and I don't have to train with pain. That's a big plus," said the two-time Parapan American Games silver medallist from Toronto 2015 and Lima 2019.

WATCH | Gagné leads delegation of Canadians in opening ceremony:

But the pandemic did also add a challenge.

According to Andrzej Sadej, Judo Canada's Coaching and Education Director and Para Head Coach, many countries kept their judo programs going full steam ahead during the pandemic.

"They were just continuing through the COVID challenge as if it didn't exist," Sadej told CBC Sports. "This was clear in the [June IBSA Visually Impaired Grand Prix] tournament in Great Britain. We're not competing on an equal playing field.

"And it's not hearsay; it's what we can see on the mats, and we also have friends all over the world who can confirm this was indeed the case."

Memories of Rio 2016

Born with a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which left her completely visually impaired, Gagné, now based in Montreal, competes against athletes who have a percentage of vision.

She lost in the quarter-finals to Sevinch Salaeva of Uzbekistan in her first Paralympic Games at Rio 2016 — thus ending her campaign one win shy of a medal.

Five years later, the time has finally come for the 35-year-old to have another shot. Even though things are "very different," she says.

"Five years is a very long time. People change, times have changed, and COVID has changed us and the circumstances as well, so I don't think it'll be comparable to Rio," said Gagné, who served as Canada's Tokyo Paralympic flag-bearer for Tuesday's opening ceremony.

Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images/File
Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images/File

"But it'll be very satisfying to be able to step out onto the competition in Tokyo [and say] we made it, we did it, we're here, and it was all worth it."

If Gagné is able to get her hands on the Paralympic gold medal, the honour will be Canada's first in the sport in both Olympic or Paralympic Games. The country has claimed two silver and five bronze in the former, as well as four bronze in the latter.

Top-seeded Para judoka in her category

With world No. 1 Inna Sych from Ukraine not competing in Tokyo for maternity reasons, Gagné will be the top-seeded -52kg athlete in her category.

But topping her class "doesn't change anything" for her.

"It's just a number. In Judo, one mistake can cost you the match or make you win it, no matter if you're number one or number 20," she said. "For me, it's just remembering the plan for each person, the strategy and just staying in the moment."

For Sadej, the top-seed stamp shows how strong of a medal contender the 35-year-old is.

"It wasn't that somebody decided to give her that privilege. She earned it," he said.

Sadej has been working with Gagné since 2014, therefore coaching her in the preparation for and during the last Paralympic Games in 2016.

"She was much less experienced in Rio and ended up fifth, with the taste of the medal in her mouth. We don't want to end up in the same situation this time.

"She's a much more mature and experienced athlete. She beat half of the field that's going to be in Tokyo in the last two years, including some athletes that are clearly borderline visually impaired," he added.

Sport to undergo major classification changes in 2022

The "significant misrepresentation in [the Para judo] classification process" is being addressed by the International Paralympic Committee, Sadej said.

The IPC will separate totally from partially visually impaired athletes and add more eligibility standards, which can help the longevity of Gagné's career.

"The 2024 Paralympic Games are going to be conducted in a completely different and hopefully much fairer environment," said Sadej, who firmly believes Gagné will compete in Paris in three years' time — when she'll be 38.

"She is the highest-ranked blind athlete in the world in the female weight divisions, which speaks clearly that she's one of the most capable of the blind athletes around. If she decides to stay and train until 2024, she will definitely be a gold-medal contender once again."

Gagné's resumé includes gold medals at the Calgary 2018 and Montreal 2020 Pan American Para Judo Championships.

Her bronze at the 2018 World Championship in Odivelas, Portugal was the first medal for a Canadian woman in the history of the competition.

WATCH | What you missed on Day 2 of competition in Tokyo:

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