Marissa Papaconstantinou was a multi-sport athlete before becoming a track star.
Growing up in Toronto she played soccer, basketball, tennis — any sport she could. Her parents, both of whom were accomplished athletes themselves, encouraged her to play sports to find her passion. Born without her right foot, sports also served another purpose for Papaconstantinou.
“Sports was just a way for me to always feel included,” she said. “I knew I was different, but that just made me work harder and want to be better than my peers at the same time because it was almost like I wanted to prove myself constantly.
“But I think that also created the work ethic that has led me to all the things that I’ve accomplished so far.”
Papaconstantinou didn’t specialize in track until she was 13, when she set the Canadian record for the 100 metres for her T64 classification. The achievement came at a Team Canada camp she initially wanted to leave because she was homesick.
By 16, Papaconstantinou represented Canada at the Rio Paralympics in both the 100 metres and in the 200, her preferred distance. Her time in the 200m semifinal would have qualified for the final in fourth position, but she was disqualified for stepping on the line.
The disqualification taught a hard lesson and she hasn’t committed a lane violation since. But it also marked the beginning of a stretch of bad luck that threatened to derail her career.
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In 2017 at the World Para Athletics Championship, Papaconstantinou tore her hamstring, though she did manage to finish the race. In 2018, she tore a knee tendon. Those injuries changed how she saw the sport.
“For a couple of years there, I was feeling discouraged because I was just so confused as to why these things kept happening,” she said.
Sports media student
Instead, those trials helped make Papaconstantinou who she is today. Now 21, Papaconstantinou is a sports media student at Ryerson and was ranked third in the world in the 100 and 200 metres for the T64 classification in 2019.
She didn’t know it at the time, but when she finished her 2017 race with a torn hamstring, it represented a physical embodiment of the spirit that defines the Paralympics. The crowd roared as her competitors helped her across the finish line. The moment has since served as an inspiration for many.
“What happens if I did land on that podium, would I have had as great of an impact as I did when I tore my hamstring?” Papaconstantinou said. “I take a lot of pride in being a role model to others and setting a good example.
“And if I showed just one person that day that they can never give up, then I feel like I’ve done my job. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. And I think I did that to a lot more than just one person.”
Acting as a role model and a spokesperson for the para sport movement has long been part of Papaconstantinou’s identity. When she was 12, she spoke about overcoming her disability at Toronto-area hospital fundraisers. In 2019, Papaconstantinou signed with Nike, becoming the first female Canadian athlete to be sponsored by them. Out of her struggles came success.
Furthermore, because of her experiences with disqualification and injury, Papaconstantinou was emotionally prepared when the COVID-19 pandemic virtually cancelled 2020 in the track world. She’s learned to live in the moment rather than dwell on what could have been.
She spent the pandemic training in a makeshift gym in her parents’ home, with dumbbells, an exercise bike, and anything else she might need to train. Meanwhile, her quest to spread awareness of the para athletic movement has turned her into a TikTok sensation, as her videos have garnered millions of views during the pandemic.
As Tokyo 2020 nears, Papaconstantinou has her eyes set on more than representational victories. She may be focusing on living in the moment, but she has spent almost a decade preparing for Tokyo. She has been disqualified from the Paralympics, torn a hamstring and a tendon, and been forced away from the sport for a year. But she still dreams of a gold medal.
“I can’t lie and say that I haven’t dreamt about that situation over and over in my head, in my dreams, in my reality,” she said.
“It’s going to happen one day or another. It doesn’t make me disappointed when I wake up that I haven’t achieved that yet. It just means that I have so much more work to do to get there.”