How do they do it? Canadian Paralympian Josh Cassidy and his mom, Anne

Paralympic athlete Josh Cassidy and his mom, Anne, talk about the importance of family, advice for young athletes and preparing for the London Games.

Photo courtesy of Critical Tortoise Photography.

Sport: Paralympic athletics
Age: 27
Residence: Toronto, Ontario
Paralympic career: Finished with the fourth-fastest time ever recorded in the 5,000 metre at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games
Events for 2012 London Paralympic Games: 800 metre, 1,500 metre, 5,000 metre and marathon

At only three weeks old, Josh Cassidy was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the spine and abdomen. Given a low chance of survival after undergoing multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy, Cassidy defied the odds, going on to become one of Canada’s most celebrated Paralympic athletes. He has since competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, clocking in with the fourth-fastest time in the history of the 5,000 metre event. Currently ranked at the top in Canada in all of his events, the Ottawa native also recently beat the world record by two seconds at the Boston Marathon. Now, at the age of 27, Cassidy is gearing up for the London Games and a shot at the podium.

You randomly met a Paralympics coach in a restaurant back in 2000. How did that meeting inspire you to get involved with racing?
I’d tried racing a couple of times before [meeting him] but he lent me my first racing chair and got me set up with people in the sporting community. It was a pivotal moment that got me on the right track. My inspiration was Canadian Paralympic Jeff Adams who has won multiple medals in past Paralympic Games. Seeing him do those amazing things in his career definitely inspired me. That was a journey in itself; being inspired by someone as a kid, eventually meeting them and then being at the same training camps, competing together and finally surpassing him in the races and breaking records. Its been quite a journey with people who’ve inspired and helped me along the way.

How has the decision to start competing changed you?
When you’re an elite athlete at this level it becomes a complete lifestyle. My everyday living [has] definitely shaped who I am as a person.

What was your exercise regimen like when you were first starting out?
At first I was just trying it out for a summer, until I got my first racing chair in Grade 11 and then I was doing a few days a week. It was a build-up, nothing happens overnight. Now I exercise about twice a day, six days a week.

What message do you offer kids and young athletes and how do you live that lesson day-to-day?
I think by example. There’s a motto that I came up with that I’ve lived by and that’s sort of what I share. You have to want something, first of all. Secondly, you have to put in the work and, thirdly, [understand] that the work is going to take time. Then any goal can be achieved, any obstacle can be overcome and that’s my credo that I live by and the message I pass on.

What has been your favourite career highlight so far and why?
I’d say the recent Boston Marathon and winning such a prestigious race against Paralympic gold medalists, world-record holders and previous champions. Coming out on top as the clear-cut winner from start to finish after a really tough winter of training while every obstacle in life was thrown at me, that was something that was definitely a huge highlight. But obviously also my first Games in Beijing was huge.

What words of advice would you give to young athletes?
Just realize that it will take some time. Being a student of your sport is something I learned from my favourite athlete, Patrick Roy. I remember one of his hockey cards talked about studying hard and applying that work ethic to everything you do. Eventually the rest will work itself out.

What does it mean to you to have your whole family on hand for the first time at the London Games?
I had a few members who were able to join me in Beijing and that was my favourite part about that experience. The thing I’m really excited about it getting to share this experience with them because they’ve been with me this whole journey. Something like that doesn’t mean nearly as much without the people you love and care about being there with you.

What is the most rewarding thing about being an athlete?
Achieving clear-cut goals. After my very first World Championships in 2006, I realized that I was looking forward to the winter training ahead. So I think, for me, despite all of the moments on podiums or winning races — which are totally satisfying — it was the realization that it was the everyday in-and-out grind that nobody else knows about which actually defines me even more as a person and is more fulfilling in my journey as an individual.

As the mother of 10 children, Anne Cassidy talks about her eldest son, Josh, and his path to the Paralympics.

What was your initial reaction when Josh took up racing?
I think it was exciting to be able to see him compete in something more on his level. He always did everything that his brothers and everyone else did. He played hockey and football, but he was never allowed to join in any city leagues because of his disability. It was considered a safety factor for the other kids. While in high school he’d found there was a competition where there was a wheelchair classification and he [entered to race] in a manual chair. When we got there, there were other students competing in racing chairs. It was very emotional to watch. I actually think it was raining and, even then, he was passing other kids in racing chairs. Just to see that was really exciting.

How did you balance raising your other children while supporting Josh with his training?
I think that by the time Josh really started committing to his training he was about 17 and, being the oldest of 10 siblings, he was very independent to begin with. So he was never really treated differently and he always led the bunch. He was very determined and strong and worked very hard, so a lot of it he gets total credit for.

What tips would you offer other parents who have kids who aspire to compete in the Paralympics?
I think the biggest thing is to be there to support them and believe in their dreams. Be optimistic. I think Josh is a very good example that anything is possible. He’s worked so hard on his own and I’m sure most moms are their kids’ number one fans.

What is your parenting philosophy?
(laughs) My philosophy is that I try. As long as you try to be the best you can be than you’ll be a good example to your kids. I’ve always been there on the sidelines since day one, helping Josh as a mom so it’s very exciting now that I can actually be there at the Paralympics to watch him. I’m very thankful, especially to P&G for their “Thank You Mom” program and helping all the Paralympic athletes to get over there. It’s an honour to be recognized and get that chance to be there with my son.

Editor’s note: The “Thank You Mom” program is a big part of P&G’s overall sponsorship of the Olympics and Paralympics. Beyond supporting more than 150 athletes worldwide they are also supporting the moms of all Olympic and Paralympic athletes. In Canada, that support comes in the form of a $500,000 commitment to help the moms of all Olympic and Paralympic athletes make their way to London to see their kids compete. For more information visit pgeveryday.ca.

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