As Corey Stewart makes his way from his kayak to his wheelchair, his mother Paula gently rests her hands on his shoulder.
The 23-year-old member of the Pitt Meadows Paddling Club is six weeks removed from his silver-medal performance at the nationals in Ottawa.
The hulking Stewart may have lost out on gold by just four tenths of a second, but the result pushed the possibility of a trip to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro on the training schedule. The goal has always been Tokyo in 2020, but his strong showing in the nation’s capital has changed the narrative.
But it won’t come easy for the soft-spoken Stewart.
Born with spina bifida and cognitive delays, Stewart’s accomplishments on the water are a testament to his natural abilities. Barrel-chested, he has the size and strength needed to excel in his sport.
But it’s the support around him that truly allows him to shine on the national stage, and hopefully, one day, at the Paralympics.
His mother Paula is overwhelmed by her son’s success. It’s not something she ever imagined when she first brought her son to the club in 2008.
“It’s surreal,” said Paula. “Our lifestyle is very day-to-day. Paddling is just something that Corey loves to do and I just make sure his days can stay consistent so he can and have these types of opportunities. The rewards that come with it are pretty incredible. But we’re not really fully comprehending the magnitude of where he’s gone and what he can do.”
On a beautiful fall day, the groundswell for support for Stewart’s dream is evident on the docks at the paddling club. As Stewart takes to the water, his mother Paula is joined by his head coach Brian Hammer, along with paddling club founder Rick Hammer, and Mary Jane Abbott, who is the executive director of CanoeKayakBC.
Also joining them is provincial MLA Michelle Stilwell, the minister of social development and social innovation. Stilwell broke her neck in a fall when she was 17. Confined to a wheelchair, she went on to win gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics in basketball. In Beijing in 2008, she won gold in the 100 and 200 metre, and in 2012 won gold in the 200 m and silver in the 100 m. She said she just wanted the chance to meet Stewart in hopes of inspiring him to following his dreams.
“When I heard about Corey, and his rowing achievements, I wanted to meet and encourage him,” said Stilwell, who still holds the world record in the 100, 200 and 800 m.
“Sports teach you so much that you can use in life. You learn to work hard, you learn perseverance and you learn discipline. These are important life skills that will help Corey reach his dreams.”
Stilwell said she thinks seeing Stewart succeed shows that our communities are stronger when we find ways to include and support each other.
“For Corey, it means building his skills and confidence. It’s a source of pride for him, his family and his hometown. That’s why it is also important to recognize groups like the Pitt Meadows Paddling Club and CanoeKayakBC that are accessible and welcoming to everyone.”
For Paula, the word discipline is exactly what has been the blessing from Corey’s venture into competitive racing.
“If we didn’t have consistency or the stability that we have here and what we’ve learned from his coach Brian, our life would be so much more challenging.”
For now, that moment is training. Stewart, out of breath, said he just hopes he can continue to do what he loves most.
I just want opportunity to represent Pitt Meadows Paddling Club and doing what I truly love, which is competing and racing at a national level,” said Stewart.
For his coach, the 2016 Paralympics may be a stretch, but the skill is there.
“He’s the second fastest in Canada within point four of a second, and making up that time shouldn’t be a problem. But it’s making up the time for the world and Olympic standards that will be the challenge,” said Hammer.
“It’s not impossible, it’s just going to require a lot of training on Corey’s part.”
But like everyone else on the dock, he’s looking forward to the challenge, one day at a time.
For Paula, the idea of going to the Paralympics is hard to fathom.
“I think, when the day comes, that will be very emotional. But like I said, we live in the moment.”