- Meghan Tansey Whitton
- Paralympic hopeful Pam LeJean holds the North American record for shot put.
This time two years ago, Pam LeJean threw a discus just for the hell of it. After watching recurring shoulder injuries keep her from playing basketball, her strength coach suggested that she and her "long arms" might be well-suited for field sports like javelin, shot put and discus. "So, we went out into the gym, and I got an indoor discus, and I threw the Canadian standard distance the first time," says the 30-year-old, now-national-record-holding Paralympic hopeful nonchalantly.
It sounds like beginner's luck, but this was no shortcut to greatness. LeJean has been an athlete her entire life—growing up in Sydney, she played basketball, rugby and swam competitively—but when she was 17, a car accident left her paralyzed from the chest down. Luckily, her physiotherapist at the QEII's Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre—former Olympian Sue MacLeod—pushed her to get back into the pool almost immediately, only to have a flare-up of tendinitis in her shoulders cut her training program short and keep her away from sports. Until almost 10 years later when she got into wheelchair basketball. "It was really exciting because I was playing sports again and being competitive again and I was really, really happy," says LeJean. Unfortunately, it didn't take long before the tendinitis, and the disappointment, returned, but that one-off discus throw has catapulted her back in competition mode.
"It saved me," she says. "I was lost and I had no idea what I was going to do. I thought I had everything figured out and it didn't work. I was looking for the next opportunity." Two thousand-thirteen was a whirlwind year from there on—LeJean trained in Edmonton, competed in her first competition (an international one, NBD) in Arizona, where she scored two silver medals, was asked to join Team Canada for the world championships in Lyon, France (where, surprise, she won a bronze medal in seated shot put) and then did Nova Scotia proud by winning two golds at the Canada Games. And that was just six months.
7,788 kilometres from Halifax to Rio de Janeiro
Since teaming up with her trainer, Ueli Albert, in 2013, LeJean's had the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in sight and because she's now a funded athlete, competition prep is her full-time job. "We train eight times a week, and do things like physiotherapy, if need be, and massage therapy," she says. She'll also make a couple of training trips a year, to warmer climates like Florida or Georgia. "Because it's winter time, and it's getting to that shack-wacky time where we have to train indoors, we'll see our sports psychologist, and she'll work with us on things like short-term goal setting and managing our stress levels in training."
Before she can qualify to go to Brazil though, LeJean will have her busiest year of competition yet—travelling to Dubai in February, Toronto's Parapan Am Games in August and Qatar in November for another round of world championships, where she hopes to break her own records.
"I always want to be peaking. I always, even in practice, I want to always be at least at par with my last throw," she adds, laughing, "I'm an asshole to myself." Jokes aside, LeJean maintains that though stress comes hand-in-hand with competition, she tries to cut out any unnecessary pressure. And having the support of her sponsors, fans, friends and family helps with that. At the end of the day though, she just wants to be the best and if her story so far is any indication, she won't quit until she gets there.
"Trying to throw further—there's just something really satisfying about that," she says. "Seeing a line on the ground, and then trying to beat it."