Jessica Frotten is still getting used to calling herself a Paralympian.
The wheelchair racer, who trains in Saskatchewan, has been competing since 2015. She’s gone to world championships, Commonwealth and Pan Am games – finally earning a place on Team Canada for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Summer Games.
“The process, when I look back, it’s been huge,” she said. “It was the smallest athletics team Canada has ever had. We only had 16 members, so it wasn’t an easy team to make.”
From the high of earning her spot on the team, came the lows of learning the 2020 games would be postponed until August 2021, then later restricted for spectators, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued.
“It was really hard for me mentally too, to kind of stay focused. But I think that I did everything in my power to get me to the Paralympics and I’m so proud of doing that,” she said.
The 33-year-old is no stranger to adversity. Just before Christmas 2009, she was a passenger in a single-vehicle rollover on an icy highway near her hometown of Whitehorse, Yukon.
The accident injured Frotten’s spinal cord. During her initial rehabilitation, she began searching for a way to gain some independence.
“I was looking for something to push my limits and a little bit beyond what traditional rehab had to offer me,” she said.
“In my internet searches, I found the First Steps Wellness Centre. They were Canada’s first spinal cord injury recovery centre, so I knew it was a place I needed to be.”
First Steps Wellness just happened to be located more than 27,000 kilometres away – in Regina, Sask. Her brother helped her make the move.
“This place has changed my life. It’s helped me grow as a person. It’s turned me into a Paralympian essentially. And it has become my home and my family,” she said.
It’s also where she met her dear friend, Chris Pearson, who she calls her inspiration.“He showed me what I was capable of and not in a pushy way, either, just as a friend. Unfortunately, we lost him a few years ago to cancer, but I wouldn’t be a Paralympian without him. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.”
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The road to Tokyo
Through First Steps, Frotten was introduced to adaptive sports. She tried basketball, rugby and sledge hockey, but nothing came close to wheelchair racing – even if the start was rocky.“The first time I ever got in a race chair, I immediately flipped over backwards. So it wasn’t love at first sight,” Frotten said with a laugh. “It’s such a technical sport, too. So figuring out those little bits to get faster and to get stronger. Once I had my first competition, I was like, ‘oh, I’m very competitive. I would like to keep going with this.’”
Frotten connected with Richard “Rick” Reelie, a national coach from Saskatoon and a Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame inductee, and her athletic pursuits took off.
“If anything in my life has taught me anything, it’s you never know what’s going to happen and you will just end up exactly where you need,” she said.
Frotten competed in four T53 events in Tokyo: 400, 800 and 1500-metre individual races, as well as the 4×100 universal relay.
Despite not making it past the qualifying rounds, she set a new season best on her 800m race. Not to mention, finally realizing a dream she’s had for years.
“The big moment (for me) was when we all got together, all of Team Canada got together for our team photo and I was just looking out and I was just thinking about my process and my journey to get here,” she said.
Frotten noted that since her start with adaptive sports in 2013, grassroots programs have grown in Saskatchewan. She also acknowledged being a Paralympian comes with added responsibility.
“If I can inspire by doing something that I love, then maybe people down the line will get to inspire as well, and we will always be positive reinforcement for the world,” she said.
Frotten currently works as a transition specialist for URO Medical Supplies, a Canadian company specializing in services and supplies for spinal cord injuries and spina bifida.
She’s not done yet with her racing aspirations.
“This next season is going to be really quite busy with world championships and Commonwealth games,” she said.
“From there, we’ll just have to see – Paris is only three years away.”