08/10/2015 05:40 EDT | Updated 08/10/2016 05:59 EDT

Four-Time Paralympian Van Nest Hopes Parapan Am Games Inspire Canadian Kids To Try Sports

Karen Van Nest said the exposure Paralympic sport is getting in Toronto is a victory in itself.


TORONTO — The nerves from competing in front of several hundred pro-Canadian fans got the best of Karen Van Nest on Monday.

But the fact there was several hundred fans, including a crowded row of children that sat in wheelchairs at field level of Varsity Stadium, wasn't lost on the 52-year-old from Wiarton, Ont.

Van Nest won silver in archery, and blamed jitters for partially costing her gold.

But to the Canadian, who was slow to join sports after a motorcycle accident in 1985 left her an amputee, said the exposure Paralympic sport is getting in Toronto is a victory in itself.

"I'm hoping any televised para-sport encourages anyone in a chair, or anyone, whatever their disability, to get out and try sport," Van Nest said. "Because it's the healthiest thing really, for your mind, for your body. It enhances your life. And you learn so many skills."

A victory Monday meant a berth in next summer's Rio Olympics. Jane Karla Gogel of Brazil won gold, outscoring Van Nest 140-132.

Van Nest will have a couple more opportunities to secure a berth in Rio, which would be Paralympic appearance No. 5 for the multitalented Canadian, who competed in three Paralympics in pistol shooting, won a world championship silver medal in rowing, and made her first Paralympic appearance in archery in 2012 in London.

She wasn't always so active.

It was almost a decade after her accident that Van Nest summoned the wherewithal to get active, sparked when her sister encouraged her to get up and dance at a wedding.

"I loved dancing. And that's when I went, 'OK, if I can dance, I can certainly do other things,'" she said.

"I had been stuck. I got stuck for about eight or nine years of not doing, not participating because I was uncomfortable. I wasn't really encouraged to be active and I didn't want to try, because I was afraid I'd fail. So I didn't do anything, which is a shame," Van Nest said. "There was depression, anger, an adjustment of feeling sorry for myself, a combination of all those things in the grieving process.

"And I didn't know any other disabled people. And I was afraid. I think embarrassed too about being disabled."

Van Nest was 23 and travelling across Canada with her family to Edmonton — she was on her motorcycle, her parents and brother were in a van up ahead — when she collided with a pickup truck near Brandon, Man. The pickup was passing a tractor trailer on a bend. Fearful she'd veer into the guard rail of wire rope and wood posts, Van Nest focused on staying on the road. 

"I almost got there, but his back bumper caught my leg, I ended up going right through the guard rail anyways, and kept going," she said.

She was friends with an avid hunter and joined a shooting club in Brampton, Ont., making Canada's Paralympic team in 1998. She was fourth at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, missing a medal by seven-tenths of a point. She finished fifth four years later in Athens, and then, hampered by a shoulder injury that would force her to give up pistol, finished 10th in Beijing.

While in Beijing, Canada's archers invited her out to watch their competition.

"Kevin Evans was in a shootout, and the whole crowd was looking at just them," Van Nest said. "And it just seemed like a totally different atmosphere."

Evans, from Jaffray, B.C., was beaten 141-138 by American Ben Thompson on Monday.

Both Van Nest and Evans regularly compete against and train with able-bodied archers — the two versions of the sport aren't markedly different.

Van Nest, wearing sports sunglasses, her hair pulled back in a braid under a cap, shot in a standing position on a prosthetic leg. Gogel shot from a wheelchair.

While she doesn't see herself as a role model, she's often reminded that she is. She doesn't miss a chance to talk about the benefits of sports. Van Nest has perpetual back pain, caused by misalignment from walking on a prosthetic limb.

"(Sports) just helps me, if I'm not working out I'm miserable," she said. "It just keeps you sane. You have goals, you work toward those goals, and you just keep challenging yourself and that's what I enjoy about sport: doing better and better and better. That's the goal, to be the best that I can be."

Van Nest and Evans had hoped to leave Toronto with a quota spot sewn up for the Rio Paralympics. They'll take aim at a spot again later this month at the world championships in Germany.

"Now we pull up our socks, go to Germany, and hopefully everybody does as well as they can and get the quota spots," said Evans, who lost an arm in a seismic rig accident in 2000. "That's been the focus in all our work this whole year. That's the most important thing that all of us have sacrificed a huge amount of time to get."


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