Written by David Grossman
Marissa Papaconstantinou sees herself just like any other teenage female.
A student at Markham’s Bill Crothers Secondary, she has an interest in a balanced social life, remains focussed on a solid education, participates in sports, is very active in a variety of community events, and the list goes on.
But, she is also different from others her age.
And that’s noticeable when she puts on a pair of shorts, competes in a race and achieves success in a way others may have had doubts – or even taken the easy way out and simply given up.
Papaconstantinou was born with one foot.
It’s called a limb deficiency, but despite living with a disability, she has reached a special plateau – the spotlight of international sports and in exclusive company – as one of Canada’s talented sprinters in the 100 and 200 metres.
While it’s an inspiring achievement, Papaconstantinou has a positive attitude towards life. Her approach to a variety of things, some take for granted, has left a rising number of people impressed at her ability to achieve prosperity.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be born with two feet, so I just do the best that I can with what I have,” she said. “I m just really lucky to have people around me who don’t point out any differences.”
Full of pride, and with a bubbling personality, Papaconstantinou has confused opponents in a race because of her tenacity, while overwhelming others and forcing those, who may have had some doubts, to believe in her accomplishments.
It was at age 11, when she took up Para-athletics at Toronto’s Phoenix Track Club, that she was also fitted for a running blade. About two years later, Papaconstantinou set a Canadian record in the 100 metres for athletes in the T44 category – a disability sport classification defined as individuals with a single below knee amputation or an athlete who can walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs.
“There was a time when I struggled with the sport, got nervous, tired and just didn’t want to run,” recalled Papaconstantinou. “Track is both mentally and physically tough. But when I saw someone with a running blade on television, I wanted one, too.”
But Papaconstantinou found out that wearing a fitted prosthetic wasn’t always something problem-free and caused her stress at times. Advancement in technology was not firm, as it is now, unfortunate incidents occurred and Papaconstantinou, who has had many good days, had one of those bad ones when her running blade snapped during a race.
She quickly found out that life goes on – and it did, in a big way, for her.
While, at the young age of 12, Papaconstantinou could have competed for Canada at the Paralympics in London, she waited four years later – more mature, a stronger athlete and better developed – for the 2016 Games.
In Rio, her Paralympics debut, it was a memorable occasion for her family, coaches and friends. Papaconstantinou was adamant that she didn’t do as well as expected. However, missing out on the 100 metres final by 0.06 seconds is nothing to be upset about and running a personal-best time in the 200 metres, against world competitors and some much older, was an achievement in itself.
“Deep down, there is this determination to succeed and I have come a long way,” said the former Grade 10 high school Athlete of the Year and four consecutive times earned Honours academic grades. “I’m thinking of Japan and 2020 (the next Paralympic Games), but I am also out to make Para-sport more noticeable to the public because many people don’t understand what we do.”
Personal best times, so far, of 13.61 seconds in the 100 metres, clocked at the National championship in Edmonton in the summer of 2016, and 28.16 in the 200 metres run in Brazil the same year have inspired Papaconstantinou, who trains year round four to five days a week, to reach for the top.
“I was taught to do what I love to do, be grateful and have a positive attitude” she said. “With dedication, lots of hard and intense work, along with a commitment to keep getting better at what you do, I know anything can be achieved.”