Brendan Cote Williamson

Brendan Cote-Williamson sets sights on 2024 Paralympic Games

For much of his life, Brendan Cote-Williamson tried to look like everyone else.

The young member of Cote First Nation hid his left arm so no one would notice that it was shorter than his right and he only had a little movement in his hand.

“I wasn’t really open about it, it was more like insecurity,” says Cote-Williamson, who’s now 17. “I tried to fit in in every way possible.”

Learning about para sport — and having an opportunity to compete against other para athletes at an international meet this spring — has helped him reframe that mindset.

“I’m kind of proud of it in a way,” he says now of his arm. “I’ve learned to share my story and tell people that what’s happened to me happens to other people and kids around the world.”

Cote-Williamson was born with amniotic band syndrome — a rare condition in which bands of tissue inside the placenta tangle around the developing baby and restrict blood flow to certain limbs and can also result in miscarriages.

He says he never let his disability affect him much. Growing up in La Ronge his mother loved being active and Cote-Williamson followed in her footsteps. Until a few years ago, his favourite sport was soccer.

Brendan Cote-Williamson competing for Running Wild Athletics.
Brendan Cote-Williamson competing for Running Wild Athletics.

But in 2019, Marc Longjohn— who worked for Saskatoon Tribal Council at the time — suggested Cote-Williamson compete in the athletics events instead of soccer at the upcoming Tony Cote First Nations Summer Games because there weren’t enough players to form a soccer team in his age group.

The decision was a pivotal one. Cote-Williamson discovered he was a naturally gifted sprinter and, not long after, he joined Running Wild Athletics in 2019. This past fall, after COVID-19 restrictions loosened, the track club connected him with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies’ sprint program to take his training to the next level. He now trains with some of his former coaches from Running Wild Athletics and is coached by Todd Johnston.

Cote-Williamson does all of his training — and nearly all his competitions — alongside able-bodied athletes, some of whom may not always recognize how unlevel the playing field is.

“A lot of people don’t understand necessarily how important your arms are when you run,” Cote-Williamson says. “If you try to run with your arms behind your back you’re not going to be able to run as fast.

“And in sprints, it’s all about power and explosiveness. The fact that I’m not able to push off the blocks nearly as much as an able-bodied person, it sort of affects me a lot more than people would think.”

Cote-Williamson competed in his first para meet, the Para Athletics Grand Prix, this past March in Dubai. Representing Team Canada, he ran both the 100m and 400m in the T-47 classification, which encompasses athletes with a below elbow or wrist amputation or impairment.

“It was actually really interesting to see how many people there were with disabilities like mine. In Canada, let alone Saskatchewan, there’s not a lot of people that actually have those disabilities,” Cote-Williamson said. “The fact that I could see people with sort of the same disability as me that I’ve never seen before, it’s kind of refreshing and really nice to know that I’m not alone, there’s other people just like me.”

The meet opened up an exciting world of possibilities for Cote-Williamson. He’s now keen to get carded as a Team Canada athlete and has his sights set on the 2024 Paralympic Games. He’s also excited to explore his range and see what he can do in other events.

Most of all, he now wants to stand out and be an example for how successful an Indigenous youth with a disability can be when given the support and encouragement to dream big. Cote-Williamson is thankful for the support of Derek Rope, Harvey Weber, Bob Reindl, Todd Johnston and many others.

“There are plenty of Indigenous athletes all over Canada and the world that are really, really good at sports they play, but they don’t have the opportunities like I did,” he says.

“As long as they get opportunities and have the ability to do what I did, I think there’d be so many more high-level (Indigenous) athletes to represent Canada and their home community, province or town, whatever they want, in sport.”