Ontario competitive skateboarder stays positive despite mystery illness, drop in rankings

Cody French, who grew up in Elora, Ont., is an amateur skateboarder who hopes to one day compete at the Olympics. He's pictured at the Silvercreek Skatepark in Guelph on Oct. 26, when he spoke to CBC News about his recent struggles with a mystery illness and getting back on his board. (Kate Bueckert/CBC - image credit)
Cody French, who grew up in Elora, Ont., is an amateur skateboarder who hopes to one day compete at the Olympics. He's pictured at the Silvercreek Skatepark in Guelph on Oct. 26, when he spoke to CBC News about his recent struggles with a mystery illness and getting back on his board. (Kate Bueckert/CBC - image credit)

Cody French could be bitter and angry, and not many people would blame him.

Over the past 2½ years, the competitive skateboarder from Elora, Ont., has faced a mystery illness that still isn't resolved, he couldn't travel to competitions in the U.S. due to COVID-19 restrictions and he battled depression.

But French is not bitter.

Despite everything he's been through, he smiles and laughs easily as he sits on a picnic table beside the Silvercreek Skatepark in Guelph, Ont., in the rain.

"I'm so grateful and I'm so blessed," he said.

The 24-year-old feels he's on his comeback journey now, and hopes his story will inspire others to keep pushing through the tough times.

Mystery illness

French received his first skateboard from his best friend in kindergarten. He remembers that gift — and his friend who died six years ago — fondly.

French played hockey and lacrosse. When he'd visit arenas in other communities, he'd sometimes see skateparks and was always drawn to them.

"One day I just tried it and kept going. That was it," he said.

Before 2020, French said, he would escape to California in the colder months "to film, get some good skateboard clips, brand deals, and yeah, just travelling with competitions."

In early March 2020, he placed 16th at the Canada Skateboard national championships, earning 155.61 points — double his 2019 score.

But on March 24, his birthday, he was hospitalized with severe stomach pains.

"I was vomiting and it was just dry mouth. It was getting so bad and I couldn't sleep. I had nightmares and then it started to be blood, and then I got worried," he said.

When he left the hospital two weeks later, he had lost more than 50 pounds. He was weak, needed to rebuild muscle mass and get back on his board.

To this day, he doesn't know what caused him to become sick and he continues to see specialists at hospitals in Guelph, Hamilton and Toronto. Eating remains a challenge, but he says the support network he has around him with his family, sponsors and friends has been invaluable.

"Just for helping me, like, staying motivated, helping me with my medical bills — there's a lot of medical bills — and just still helping me travel and stay fit, and meal prepping and literally everything."

Set to compete again

French is now preparing for a competition this month, the Tampa AM. He hopes to rise in the rankings, and his ultimate dream would be to join Team Canada for the Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024.

"That 100 per cent, that would be my goal," he said.

He knows he has a lot of work ahead of him. French was 36th on the 2021 Canadian Skateboard ranking list. There are nine members of Canada's street skateboarding national team, and French knows competition is fierce.

But he said even if he doesn't make the Olympics, it would be OK.

Kate Bueckert/CBC
Kate Bueckert/CBC

"If I didn't make it, it wouldn't hurt me because at the end of the day, they're all my friends and I would love to see any skateboarder just going out there representing the country. That's amazing," he said.

Adam Higgins is the high-performance director and head coach of Canada Skateboard. He said French is on their radar and they saw potential in the young skater, but they also noticed he had dropped off the scene.

"The biggest thing you can do is start competing again … Going to Tampa is a great start and looking at other competitions that he can do to increase his ranking in Canada," Higgins said.

Making Team Canada is based on skaters' rankings, Higgins said. The next season, which gets underway in March 2023, is expected to have more competitions than in the past two years. It's expected competitions where French could increase his rankings will be held until June 2024, with the Paris Olympics set to start July 26, 2024.

"We look at all the events that skaters attend, we rank the skaters and try to use that to give out opportunities to skate in the qualification events," Higgins said.

"So for Cody, he needs to start competing more, increasing his ranking so we can actually get him into an Olympic application event."

Important to talk about mental health

French said that before he fell ill, it was important for him to speak out about mental health and the importance of taking care of yourself.

That has become even more important to him now. He said the various medications doctors have prescribed to him for his illness have led to bouts of depression.

"I'm from a small town and there's not much to do. Depression's a thing. Some people go down the wrong path, getting into alcohol or drugs, and it's abusive, and I've had some friends that have committed suicide. It's made me very depressed," he said.

"I've reached out to people, therapists, and I was just trying to check up on my friends. You know, it's harder when you're older and everyone's going away for school and stuff, but I check up on my friends and just always make sure everyone's OK because. I don't wanna lose anyone else, honestly."

'Never give up'

French said he loves the skateboarding community and helping out younger skateboarders when he can. He can often be found at parks in Waterloo, Kitchener and Guelph.

Sometimes, he'll give away shoes or skateboards he no longer needs.

"If I see a kid with a crappy skateboard, I try and donate one of my old boards or a new board," he said. "I always try to make sure that they have shoes. My feet are small, I'm Size 8, so I always help out the little guys with some shoes."

He hopes younger skaters are inspired by his perseverance after all he's been through.

"I just want to motivate as many kids as possible just to never give up, just to keep trying, if it's a sport, a career, school," he said.

"I made it through it. I know you can make it through it. You just gotta stay positive and just keep grinding."