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Jessica Des Mazes

Wheelchair athlete Jessica Des Mazes: Terry Fox medallist

September 20, 2007

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By Marianne Meadahl

Jessica Des Mazes ventured to northern Canada in the summer of 2004 to fight fires and earn money for her university tuition. But a tragic accident sent the aspiring athlete home paralyzed after being thrown from a patrol truck.

Three years later, SFU’s 2007 Terry Fox medal recipient is not only back in class but hitting new athletic highs - with a string of recent national medals in wheelchair racing and dreams of representing Canada in wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Des Mazes will receive the medal at 11:30 am, Sept. 20, in a ceremony at the Burnaby campus’ Convocation Mall, prior to the university’s annual Terry Fox walk/run. The Terry Fox medal is awarded annually to an individual who shows courage in the face of adversity.

Shortly after her accident, Des Mazes’ parents brought a television to the VGH Spine Unit so she could view the Paralympics. “I watched wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc stun the world with five gold medals. I vowed that I would be there one day, competing with the best and using all of what I had left.”

Des Mazes spent months re-learning the most basic tasks with her remaining muscles. “What was most difficult,” she says, “was losing my identity. Instead of athlete, forest-fire fighter, backpacker, I was now ‘the girl in the wheelchair.’”

After several operations and therapy she returned to school, initially needing sleep after each class. But she grew stronger and mustered the confidence to hit the track.

“Racing gave me back the ability to get outside and sweat—it’s the closest thing I could find to a runner’s high,” says the Vancouver Sun Run’s two-time defending women’s champion.

Since taking up wheelchair basketball and making the national team as an alternate, Des Mazes has represented Canada in Sydney, Australia and at the Para-PanAmerican Games in August. The team won a silver medal.

“The injury has been traumatic,” admits Mazes, “but it has also given me a greater awareness of who I am and what strength really is. It has nothing to do with how much you can lift or how fast you can run. It comes from the core, what’s left when everything else has been ripped away.

“It’s having a goal that seems impossible, but knowing it is entirely within your grasp—if you choose to fight for it.”
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