After missing out on Rio 2016 due to a cancer scare, canoe sprinter Bernadette Wallace is set to make Olympic history in Tokyo, as one of the first-ever women to participate in C1 and C2 at an Olympic Games.
Bernadette grew up very familiar with the elite training routine, after all, her brother Ken Wallace was an Olympic Kayaking Champion, but the creative youngster never considered herself athletic nor did she ever dream of becoming an Olympian.
“I went to figure skating school and did a couple of different sports growing up, but I was very much about my art,” she said.
“I always felt like my siblings were the sporty ones and I was the creative, artistic one.
“Whenever they’d train, I’d usually be sitting on the side of the pool deck with my art book, supporting from the sidelines,” she continued.
It wasn’t until her brother started traveling the world and became Junior World Champion that Bernadette’s interest in the sport piqued.
“Seeing the success Ken had, really inspired me and I decided to start paddling myself,” she said.
“I fell out of the boat too many times to count, but it ended up becoming the only sport that could keep my interest and one that I felt I was good at.
“It almost felt like figure skating, that feeling of gliding across the water, so it became the only sport I didn’t want to quit.”
Bernadette made her first National Championships at the age of 16 and as time went on, she started to win world cup medals in the K1 5000 and K2 1000 events.
She was well on track to make her debut at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, but her plans were derailed by a cancer diagnosis.
“It was about a month out from selection and I had a small lump on my neck where I’d had a freckle removed a year earlier, but it came back,” Wallace explained.
“I started feeling really lethargic, so I went and had it checked and it turned out to be quite a large, aggressive melanoma.
“From there I went through the process of having it removed and also having a neck dissection to test my nodes.
“I was preparing for bad news but luckily it wasn’t. I was very lucky that it didn’t metastasize or spread into my blood and am always grateful to be alive and have my family around me,” she said.
“But as time went on, I started to feel really robbed because I missed out on my chance at the Olympic Games because of something out of my control.”
Taking a break from the sport to recover, Wallace moved to Canada in 2016 to coach young paddlers, and it wasn’t until 2018 that she started training for elite competition again.
However, Wallace didn’t return to kayaking in the end. Instead, she was inspired to swap to the canoe by the young girls she was coaching
“Well, I figured that if I wanted to teach the girls how to canoe, I had to learn how to stay in one myself,” she said.
“I had these 14 and 15 year-old girls taking me out and trying to get me to the start line without falling out.
“The canoe is so technical, so I definitely had more challenges than just becoming fit and strong again, but it was so much fun to learn with these kids and that really helped me to enjoy it.”
The Australian Paddle Team visited the club in Canada where Wallace was coaching, and it was then that they noticed she’d picked up the discipline quite well.
“They invited me along to train one day and I found out that not only could I stay up in a canoe, I was keeping up with them in training and everyone got a bit excited about it,” she explained.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘I came over here to coach, I don’t know if I could be an athlete again,’ but I was enjoying it so I booked a flight home and began the process of becoming an elite athlete in canoe.
“Getting back into elite training took many, many attempts because my body wasn’t used to it. I just kept on breaking down and becoming exhausted,” she said.
“I think it took me six attempts to get back into a normal training routine before I could actually make it through an entire week of training.”
Wallace relocated to South Australia to team up with her new C2 partner, Josephine Bulmer and in 2020, the pair secured Australia’s first-ever female Olympic canoe quota spot when they won the C2 500 at the Oceania Canoe Sprint Championships.
Although a personal and sentimental victory, the 30-year-old’s Olympic debut has added weight, because she will be making history for Olympic gender equality.
Since its introduction to the Olympics in 1936, the C1 and C2 events have been male-only events, but in 2017 the IOC announced that women would be able to compete in the C1 200 and C2 500 events at Tokyo for the first time.
My Jet Pack Josie 🚀@josephinebulmer.raywhite 🚀 I remember watching Josie race basically alone at the 2016 GP2 in Adelaide. I was standing in the car park about to go home with my neck taped up, and looked out to the course and saw her racing down her lane. I remember thinking, wow this girl has guts. To take a chance on swapping boats after being Junior National Champion in the kayak multiple times. I had a fair amount of respect for that, for challenging herself. I didn’t imagine we would be partners one day but I’m so glad we are. Thank you for your patience, for your time, and your resilience 💪 you’re so freakin funny and have kept it light for me when the game has been heavy. We are only getting better and thank you for leading the way here in Australia for people like me to join in the fun. Thank you to Cristi Florian our Coach who dreams the same dream and works just as hard for it. Thank you to Craig the wizard scientist S&C at SASI that got my noodle limbs ready for the challenge 💪Australian National Champions 2020 yewww 🚀🤙 Pic @jgrimages @auspaddleteam @paddle_australia @sa_sports_institute #JetpackJosie #JosieOG #danidevito #arnie #twins #icfsprint #tokyotogether
Wallace says that showing young girls they have options and pathways is imperative to the development of the sport and gender equality.
“Giving girls and women that choice, is really powerful,” she said.
“When I was coming through, I had to choose kayak because it was the only Olympic pathway, but now, girls can compete in both kayak and canoe and they have the opportunity to pick which one they enjoy the most.
“It’s about creating another pathway for girls and women, allowing them to dream and have bigger goals and to have more women in sport who are visible.
“You can’t be what you can’t see, so competing in these events is about so much more than just me.”
She credits her brother in part, for her ‘bigger picture’ outlook on how powerful sport can be.
Wallace says the three-time Olympian acted as a big inspiration for her, not only for his success on the water but for demonstrating the values of humility and altruism.
Happy birthday slightly bigger bro @kennywallace you're so good at everything, being a boss bro, son, husband, dad, friend...then I guess paddling, saving lives, cracking funnies and angry birds etc. On your way to legend status no doubt. Hope the boys take care of you today!!! Here's to another round of birthdays on tour and our 6th year on tour! 😎 #birthdaybro #bestbroaward #duisburg #2008 #wallace #michaelsphotobomb
“What inspires me the most about Ken is that he is successful, but he shares that knowledge and success to make Australians better in the future.
“Whenever he would win, it was never just about him or racing a boat from A to B, it was about something so much bigger than that, it was a win for everyone.
“He is not self-centred one little bit, he wants his wins to demonstrate that everyone can be their best.”
Bernadette carries those same values in wanting to help others to be their best. When she’s not training, she acts as a support worker for Rio 2016 Paracanoiest Jocelyn Neumueller, where her role is to assist in “helping her live her life the way she wants to.”
Although as a child she may have never considered herself the ‘sporty one’ or an ‘athlete’, these days she embraces the title.
“I’m really happy and comfortable calling myself an athlete now because I know I’ve got the body to do it, the mindset to achieve what I want to achieve, and the resilience to deal with any hurdle that comes my way.”