'I want to win the medal I'm missing:' Josh Cassidy still uncertain of Paralympic future

Wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy, who has pulled out of this Sunday's New York City Marathon due to illness, has overcome a serious shoulder injury and hopes to represent Canada at the 2024 Paris Olympics. (Submitted by Inge Johnson/Canada Running Series - image credit)
Wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy, who has pulled out of this Sunday's New York City Marathon due to illness, has overcome a serious shoulder injury and hopes to represent Canada at the 2024 Paris Olympics. (Submitted by Inge Johnson/Canada Running Series - image credit)

There is more than a trace of bitterness in Josh Cassidy's voice nearly 15 months after being left off the Canadian team for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

The wheelchair racer remains frustrated by the few quota spots afforded bigger nations like Canada because of an increase in participating countries. It had 16 in Para-athletics for Japan, where 155 countries competed, compared to 24 Canadian athletes at the 2012 London Olympics (141 countries) and 22 in Rio four years later (146 nations).

In 2019, Cassidy posted personal-best times across three events at age 35 ahead of the 2020 Games, postponed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was among about 50 Canadian track and field athletes who met the Paralympic qualifying standard in their respective events and a year ago ranked ninth in the world in the men's marathon.

"I think they went totally by [world] ranking," Cassidy said from his Barrie, Ont., home before withdrawing from this Sunday's New York City Marathon due to illness. "It was a shame for the sport. [The men's T54 marathon] is the most competitive with the deepest field.

"We could have had a field of 40 strong in the [Paralympic] marathon and I think 15 men lined up. The IPC is trying to grow sports and add more events but at the expense of the most competitive [of all the Para-athletics disciplines].

"What is a Paralympics or Olympics," he added, "if you're missing four of the top 10 in the world [in the marathon]?"

British wheelchair athlete Dave Weir, whose friendship with Cassidy dates to the early 2000s, was "devastated" about the Canadian's absence in Tokyo.

"I know how passionate and proud he is about his country and racing for his country," the six-time Paralympic champion said of Cassidy from his home in Hastings, England.

Cassidy, whose best finish across three Paralympics is fifth from 2012 in the 800 metres, admitted to having a "down year" in track and road racing in 2021. He also had COVID and wasn't cleared until the day he flew to Switzerland for two Olympic qualifying competitions.

I know I'll get back [to pre-injury form]. ... It's waiting and hoping for the recognition and support. — Canadian wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy on potential funding from Athletics Canada

"I was still a wreck, hadn't trained much in two weeks and obviously wasn't at my best," said Cassidy, a 31-time Canadian champion who believed his many years of experience and 2019 performance should have weighed more heavily in the Tokyo Olympic selection process.

Cassidy was also working himself into shape after suffering a 50 to 75 per cent muscle tear in the rotator cuff of his right shoulder in January 2020 that kept the native of Port Elgin, Ont., off the racing circuit for over a year.

"At one point," he said, "I didn't know if I would compete again but I [met the Paralympic qualifying standard], got back in the top 10 [of world rankings] but no Tokyo. I was obviously disappointed, bitter towards the politics of the sport, but had no regrets. I feel I may have regrets if I put everything into it again and not get selected.

"I know I'll get back [to pre-injury form]," added Cassidy, a co-flag-bearer for Canada at this year's Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, where he placed fourth in the marathon. "I've done this a million times, so it's waiting and hoping for the recognition and support [from the governing body]."

The New York City Marathon, where Cassidy was fourth last year for his highest-ever placing at the event, would have been his final race of the season before learning if he'll receive a monthly allowance exceeding $1,000 under the Athlete Assistance Program from Sport Canada, a branch of the federal government that sends money to Athletics Canada annually from taxpayers. An announcement is expected within two weeks.

'Competition for Paris team will be strong'

Recently, the 37-year-old Cassidy was not among the Para-athletes added to the Canadian Athletics Performance Pathway (CAPP) enhanced funding program due to his current world ranking of 16th.

"Josh is a well-respected athlete and AC would of course welcome him on the team for Paris if he meets the selection criteria," Athletics Canada explained in an email to CBC Sports. "The selection criteria has not been published yet because IPC/WPA [World Para Athletics] haven't published the qualifying process.

"We expect that this information will be made available next year.  We also expect that competition for the Paris team will be strong, and of course, no one has a guaranteed slot at this stage. In terms of Tokyo, the selection criteria was straightforward and Josh was simply not ranked high enough to make the team."

Beyond his work as an author, artist and motivational speaker, AAP funding would likely be a deciding factor in the Ottawa-born Cassidy pursuing a spot with Team Canada for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

"Being left off the team last year [for Tokyo] was something that really, really impacted him," Cassidy's longtime strength coach, Wayne Burke, told CBC Sports. "I don't know if two years of COVID, having the shoulder injury and coming back to race is how he wants to finish his career."

Burke emphasized Cassidy, who has a one-year-old son and shares four-year-old twin boys with his girlfriend, must commit himself and be all-in if Paris is his goal.

'Josh is very driven'

"I was fortunate to be an athlete my whole life and I know what it's like when you stop," said Burke, a father of two who had a 28-year career in lacrosse and played professionally for Columbus and Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League. "I talk to him as a friend, athlete and strength coach. Once you're out, you're not going to be able to go back.

"Josh is very driven. If he decides he wants [to compete in Paris] I think he will [qualify]."

Added Weir: "If Brent Lakatos has truly retired [from wheelchair racing] then who is [in Paris for Canada]? There's no one and [Cassidy] deserves to be there, and I think he can do it."

Cassidy said his right shoulder responded well after the Oct. 9 Chicago Marathon, where he was eighth of 44 finishers in one hour 36 minutes 57 seconds. A week later, he completed the 42.2-kilometre distance in 1:39:54 as part of a test exercise at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, where a wheelchair division was offered for the first time in 33 years.

Weir had hoped Cassidy would treat Sunday's race as a training exercise to build for next season and not worry as much about performance and time.

Having my son and stepsons at Paris 2024 ... would be a highlight of my life. [But] I won't sacrifice supporting them if there isn't funding from [Athletics Canada]. — Cassidy

Last year in New York, an exhausted Cassidy held on to fourth place late in the race after almost three weeks without a full night's sleep following the birth of Henrik, who will be a driving force behind Cassidy's quest to race in Paris.

Cassidy recalled Weir celebrating his marathon victory and fourth gold medal of the 2012 Olympics with his then-one-year-old son Mason, whom he took on a lap of honour in front of a home crowd of 80,000 in London and draped the medal around his neck.

"Having my son and stepsons at Paris 2024 is a massive motivator for me and would be a highlight of my life," said Cassidy, who was inducted to the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour in September. "[But] I won't sacrifice supporting them if there isn't funding from [Athletics Canada]. I lost out on funding before for one year due to injury and had to sell my home to survive [before racing to] multiple personal bests [in 2019].

"Nothing is more important than family now. I am seeking sponsorships and partnerships with my speaking and workshops and doing more art commissions, so I can support them and focus on performance when it matters most leading up to Paris.

"I'll be their example of how to move through challenges, tough times and believe in yourself to pursue dreams," continued Cassidy, "and I want to win the Paralympic medal I'm missing."

WATCH | Cassidy helps lead Canada at Commonwealth Games opening ceremony: