Elsa Genevieve-Lalonde was a competitive skier until she suffered a snowboarding accident when she was 12 years old which left her a paraplegic. After returning to school, she joined her school volleyball team, hoping to play in a wheelchair. When that wasn???t allowed, she took the advice of a coach and decided to play sitting volleyball. She trains for the sport by rowing at the Ottawa Rowing Club. Photo taken at 09:04 on June 10, 2014. (Photo by Wayne Cuddington/ Ottawa Citizen)
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen
Elsa Lalonde is an early riser. Six mornings a week, she’s up at 5:30 a.m., driving from Rockland to the Ottawa Rowing Club for four hours of training.
Physiotherapy and occupational therapy appointments take up three afternoons a week. Doctor’s appointments appear on the calendar. Free time is spent doing home school work. She wants to complete Grade 12 in the fall. She wants a career as an assistant physiotherapist and occupational therapist.
It’s busy, but necessary.
“I hope to represent my country one day,” Lalonde says, with the confident smile of an 18-year-old who in May was awarded the Character Award from the Ontario Federation of Secondary Schools Athletic Association for her groundbreaking efforts on and off the volleyball court.
“If I keep training, it can happen. It could be the world championships. It could be the Paralympics.”
The Ottawa Rowing Club, in the shadows of Parliament Hill, has become her second home. Boyfriend, Tyrone Henry, and soulmate, Veronique Boucher, also spend their mornings on the water.
Should Lalonde make a national rowing team, she would add another chapter to her compelling comeback.
At 12, Lalonde was a competitive volleyball player and downhill skier when she caught a patch of ice on what she has since been told was a ”real easy slope” while snowboarding at Mont Olympia in the Laurentians.
When she woke up, she was paralyzed from the hips down. She suffered severe brain trauma, losing most of her memory. Light and noise made her irritable. Depression and anxiety were her daily companions.
“I was constantly nauseous, (regularly) lost my balance and I had headaches 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she says.
She spent two years in and out of hospital, trying to deal with her new wheelchair-bound reality, experiencing “a whole spiral of mental health issues.”
Lalonde returned to school, but in Grade 10, her family discovered her “biggest secret” – an eating disorder. Lalonde spent the next four months in the day program at CHEO.
That’s where the bounce back began.
“I was no longer going to let this destroy me. I began standing up for myself. It wasn’t always easy but I kept in my mind that I couldn’t let this monster win the fight.”
At CHEO, she had daily support from Boucher, who had three fingers amputated and suffered a crushed hand and wrist in an ATV accident.Elsa Lalonde’s competitive spirit and her family, some very good friends and a caring teacher, have carried her through her injury.
“When one of us is down, the other tries to bring the other up,” says Boucher. “We feel real alone in this because nobody understands. Our injuries are not similar, but we’ve both been through pain.”
Boucher says that Lalonde is “inspirational” for what she has accomplished.
Lalonde transferred to Gisele-Lalonde High School, where volleyball coach Marcel Martin invited her to join the team – in her wheelchair.
“I thought it was just a stupid idea and that he was crazy,” she says, laughing. “The truth is, he believed in (me) way more than I did. The girls accepted me from the first second.”
Those early concerns faded away with the team’s success, but a new problem emerged. Volleyball officials deemed her wheelchair “a danger” for opponents, an argument neither Lalonde nor Martin could understand.
Martin’s answer was for Lalonde to play “sitting volleyball,” using her arms to slide towards the ball while her teammates played the game in traditional fashion. She originally dismissed the idea out of hand.
“I said, ‘Oh, my god. This is getting a bit ridiculous. I already played in the wheelchair, which is quite a big deal, right? And now I’m playing sitting?.’ But I did it.”
Lalonde was part of a team which has won the past two provincial volleyball titles – the school has won four straight overall – and Martin credits a team-oriented philosophy for the success.
“It’s like a dance,” Martin says, explaining how Lalonde and the others move in sync with each other. “Really, it boiled down to the fact that if (Lalonde) could get to the ball, let her take it. She was an asset to our club. If a person who is paralyzed can make the effort to get to the ball, it provides leadership to kids who have two legs.”
Lalonde, the first disabled athlete to win a provincial volleyball title, also spent time with the national sitting volleyball team, playing at an international tournament in Colorado. She organized sitting volleyball tournaments at the high school to raise awareness for those with disabilities. All of that led to the Character Award.
She’s proud of it all, but credits Martin and her teammates for making it happen.Elsa Lalonde is training hard at her new sport — rowing.
“They allowed me to live the best two years of high school I could have ever imagined,” she says.
The award is one of many positives in the past year. Following an experimental treatment in Toronto last fall, aimed at stimulating nerves in her brain, she now has limited function in her ankles, feet and knees.
“I can’t feel anything, but I can tell my foot, my ankle, to move a bit. But the rest, like, say, trying to kick a ball or something, that’s not happening,” Lalonde says. “It’s not like one day I want to walk because if this is what I keep in my mind and it doesn’t happen, I will be sad about it.”
She’s now focused on para-rowing — sitting volleyball has altered its rules, making it a sport exclusively for amputees – where she trains daily with athletes born with disabilities or were also the victims of accidents.
The workouts are overseen by Peter Hawksworth, who is also manager for Canada’s Paralympic Rowing program. Hawksworth, who met Lalonde last summer, is always seeking to introduce athletes to the sport, pushing them to reach Paralympic status.
On the water one scorching June morning, the sun is shining on Lalonde as she pushes to make herself go just a little bit faster. If you look closely, you’ll see a tattoo of a feather and birds on her right leg, which she got done after leaving CHEO. It represents freedom and is a reminder of how far she has come and is a part of a bigger message.
“It’s to, first, learn to believe in yourself, to have confidence you can do something,” she says. “And second, it’s just to show people that I’m no different from anyone else. I may be in a wheelchair, but that’s it.”
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