Written by: Sarah Eskandarpour
At sixteen years old, Marissa Papaconstantinou -- born without a right foot -- is already making an impact not only in the Canadian community, but in the global community as well. She’s spent her life experiencing exciting things such as being an ambassador for Holland Bloorview Hospital, inspiring an exhibit at the Science Centre and competing against women twice her age around the world. Today, the excitement has risen to new levels, but Marissa and her support system keep it business as usual, not letting the potentials of the 2016 Summer Paralympics distract her from focusing on what she loves. We were lucky enough to catch her -- as well as her friend Caterina and her sister Kristin -- before practice to ask her a few questions about what drives her, what she loves about Canada and what having a disability has really done for her.
"I was taught to do what I love, to do what makes me happy and to never give up, because disability is an extra-ordinary ability that makes the impossible, possible."
What’s something people may misunderstand about having a prosthetic or a blade?
Marissa: People have a really big misunderstanding about people with disabilities that do athletics because they feel bad and think “oh that sucks that she’s born without a right foot” but in reality, it’s something I can’t complain about. I’m travelling the world and getting to experience so many amazing things because of it and it’s something I wouldn’t be doing if I felt bad for myself.
The Science Centre did a whole exhibit centering around you so how does it make you feel when you hear people calling you one of their role models or someone they aspire to be like?
M: Being part of the Science Centre was really cool because it gave me the opportunity to inspire others through something as simple as being athletic with a disability. Being called a role model is something you can’t put into words. It’s a really good feeling. Knowing that other kids and people can look up to me and think “she can do it so I can do it too” is something really, really special.
What’s been the hardest thing for you on the #RoadtoRio?
M: The most challenging thing has definitely been the training getting a lot harder since last year. It’s been really exciting, though. I’m still young - I’m only 16. I’m not going to say “I’m going to win a gold medal” because I won’t be at that level until I’m 25. I’m going for the experience, I’m putting my name out there and I’m showing everyone that I can compete with these women at 16 years old and perform amazingly alongside them.
Who or what is it that drives you and keeps you going when things get tough?
M: Something my parents teach me is to always be grateful and have a positive attitude. No matter how difficult my day may be, I’m still so lucky. I have a family that cares about me, a beautiful home and I get to live in a safe place in the world. I was taught to do what I love, to do what makes me happy and to never give up, because disability is an extraordinary ability that makes the impossible, possible.
How has it been balancing school, social life and training?
M: During the week is when my practices are so I focus on track and school and then during the weekend I have a little bit of fun. The best way I can balance myself is to just do it and not complain about it. And we have ILIP at school which is kind of like study hall.
Caterina: But we’re in the same ILIP so we never get any work done.
Okay, so what does a typical school day look like for you?
M: I wake up at seven
Kristin: I wake her up.
M: Yeah, she wakes me up. I get to school about 8 and sit in the cafeteria since I’m there early, then I have class throughout the day until 2 when I take the bus to training. I do some sort of training from 4-7 depending on the practice and then I’m home at 7:30. After that it’s homework, eating and bed. They’re really busy days but they’re good.
What are you doing when you’re not training?
M: Well, I train all year round but I get little breaks here and there so after I come back from nationals next week I’ll have a week or two off. I like hanging out with my friends and family doing fun things. I’m just relaxing as much as I can.
C: She also low key sings.
M: Yeah, if I’m just at home and I’m bored, I’ll just sing.
K: I’ll be trying to sleep and I’ll just hear her singing in her bedroom.
Outside of track, what’s something else you’re passionate about and would consider pursuing in your life? Would it be singing?
M: It wouldn’t be singing because that’s more of a thing I do out of enjoyment and to unwind. I don’t really see myself doing anything else because sports has been such a huge focus in my life. I’ve been into sports since age 3 so I’ve never thought of anything past that.
What makes you most proud about being Canadian?
M: Last year when I was at World's people would ask me where I’m from and after I’d say Toronto, they’d think that’s the coolest thing and express that they’ve always wanted to visit. Just hearing those words made me feel so proud to call Toronto home. It’s a huge thing right now. Toronto is really trendy and people look at us and say ‘“oh that’s so cool, I want to be a Torontonian!”
Why do you think that is?
M: I don’t know, probably Drake plays a huge part in it. The city itself is just so beautiful and I think people here underestimate it.
C: Yeah, we don’t realize as much as other people until they come up and say “oh my god thats so cool, Toronto is so cool.” We’re used to it so we don’t realize how amazing it is until someone from somewhere else points it out.
Where is your favorite place in Canada?
M: Toronto is for sure my favorite. No matter what, anywhere I go I always love coming home because I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
What’s something that you guys want people to know about Marissa?
C: Marissa is one of the most well-rounded people in every aspect. She never complains and always puts people before her no matter what.
K: She’s very determined. We get very competitive with things like potato sack races. The stakes get very high. But it’s fine because we do a lot of things for each other. She’ll take me to really cool places because of her sports and then I’ll be the one making her food at home because she’s lazy.
Marissa has experienced things that most of us can only dream of experiencing, all while living with a disability some may call exactly that - disabling. After only a minute of speaking with her, it’s clear that she has no room in her life for anything less than positivity, support and a powerful work ethic. In her preparations for Rio, Marissa is gearing up for her most impactful life event yet and through this journey, she’s teaching the rest of us what happens when you follow your passions and refuse to let a small circumstance define how your life unfolds. For us at Peace Collective, we could not be more proud to have Marissa be on track to represent our city, our country and our home.