Renée Foessel - Journey of a Para-Athlete with Cerebral Palsy

Fitness For All Podcast: Episode 14

Welcome to another edition of Fitness for All with Cam Jenkins, sponsored by Lebert Fitness.

In this episode, Cam talks with Renée Foessel. At the 2019 IPC World Athletics Championships Renée Foessel captured bronze in the women's discus F38 as she set a new Canadian record four times, with her longest throw of 33.37 holding up for a spot on the podium.

She was born and raised in Mississauga, Ont. She was first introduced to track and field at age nine. She was born with cerebral palsy that affects one side of her body.

In 2015, she earned a complete medal set at the Parapan American Games in Toronto. She won gold in the discus, silver in the shot put and bronze in the javelin. Those performances provided a dose of confidence that carried through to the IPC World Championships, where she collected a bronze in the discus. She was fourth in discus at both the 2016 and 2017 Paralympic Games. 

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Show Notes - Episode 14

Key Takeaways From This Episode: 

Welcome to another edition of the Fitness For All podcast brought to you by Lebert Fitness. On today's show, we have Paralympic athlete, Renee Foessel. Welcome to the show, Renee.


Renee Danielle Foessel is a Canadian Paralympic athlete

Thank you for having me.

You're more than welcome. Renee, can you tell us a little bit about yourself; your Paralympic world achievements to start off with.

I have been a Paralympic athlete for most, if not all of my life. I'm very privileged to have that as part of my experience in growing up. My primary discipline is track and field. So, I'm a Paralympic athlete in the event of discus throw. I would recommend it to anybody that's looking at getting into a summer sport. I kind of got into Paralympics at the age of, or sorry into track and field at the age of six or ten years old and it's been a very important role in my life. I have always wanted to excel in it and in 2016, I was able to make the Paralympic games and had my first debut at trying to compete to go on the podium. I came out fourth. I was extremely happy with the results and I had an overall good experience with it and now I'm leading into what was supposed to be the 2020 Paralympic games now, 2021 Paralympic games.

That's great. When you started off did you dream of being a Paralympic athlete? What was the motivation behind starting with the sport?

Yeah, when I was young my disability was difficult to keep up with my sisters; I have two sisters I'm in the middle. We have a very close age gap, so my younger sister and I would always do the same sports. My mom and father would get me involved in soccer, basketball, some of the more major events and as I was growing up, I did find that there was a bit of difficulty in keeping up with her. So, that's when I got involved in Cruisers Sports for the Physically Disabled and I got involved in Paralympic sports. When I jumped into track and field and I did sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball as well, it was an opportunity for me to adapt my abilities to something that I became very passionate for. So, track and field started off as an opportunity for me to be fit and be involved in sports and slowly became something that I did want to compete at the Paralympics and something that I continue to want to compete and represent my country for.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the fitness components and what fitness means to you? Also, when did you start to get really serious about your training in your fitness to reach the level of being a Paralympic athlete?

The fitness goals for me have always been revolving around sport. It started out just as an opportunity to have fun, be inclusive and the teamwork. I would say that I became more serious about my fitness goals when it was probably leading into the 2016 Paralympic games where I had a realization that, if I want to sustain and to move towards this goal, then I have to sustain my fitness levels. That includes just keeping a healthy lifestyle overall for trying to be a better person for myself and my future. So, in 2016, I would say, is when I got more serious about my goals. I started to focus more on the nutritional aspect as well as the movement in my lifestyle more than I had previously and that was kind of an eye-opening moment and realizing that this is not only for myself and my fitness goals, but this is for myself moving forward and all around important, healthier lifestyle.

Renee Foessel competes in the women's f38 discus final

No, absolutely, it is very important to have a healthier lifestyle. What was the motivation behind your healthier lifestyle? Was it just the Paralympics or was there also another reason behind that motivation?

I think that my fitness goals for the Paralympics was a large aspect of it, but there was also the realization at that point that I wasn't in a very good lifestyle altogether, as far as my health leading into 2016. So, it was reflecting back and I looked at where I was and also looked around me and you see people you love go through so many different health scares and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t putting myself at risk of that happening as well as put my family at ease.

No, absolutely, that’s a huge motivator when somebody that is close to you has some health challenges, you want to try to be the best version of yourself that you can be. I want to talk a little bit more about the Paralympics and the World Championships, because I think it was the most recent World Championships, you did a phenomenal job. Can you explain to the listeners about the experience you had at the worlds, where it seemed like every throw that you made was either a personal best or a world record!

Thank you for that. Yeah, the world championships in November of last year (2019) was definitely an eye-opening experience. My support system and I did a broad look at what I had been doing previously for sport, for my lifting and for my nutrition and we kind of did a 180 and just changed everything up. So, leading up to the world championships, I had changed a strength coach and we'd focus more on the lifting aspect of my sport as well as obviously, the throws itself. We also shifted that focus on what is best for sport and as a female in sport, I think there's also that sort of pressure to fit into the idea of what a female should look like versus what is good for your goals. So, we shifted my mindset and looked at what are the best goals for my nutrition as far as what I would like to do at the world championships. Leading to the world championships, I had this positive atmosphere, I had, and I still have, a very confident outlook on where I am and how I should feel about myself. With the games and having all of that leading into it, it just really made me capable and I think really played a large aspect of being able to go out and getting a personal best after not being able to do it for three years prior to that.

Renee Foessel with her coach

What was it about the training that was different from previous years up until that year? I know you touched on a little bit about it but tell us a little bit more about that.

Yeah, the specifics of the training that had changed was that prior to that my team and I had been heavily throws focusing, so discus throws, higher volume; we had a completely different technique. For discus for me, in my Paralympic classification, I was focusing prior to that, on trying to do a spin throw, so spin movement. What is best for me and for my disability and throwing was being at a stand throw position so that I could get all the power I had in my legs and really just chuck that disc out there. So, we made that specific technical change in my throw and understanding that that was just what was best for my body and throwing the best I could, but then the lifting also increased.

I went from doing a general kind of programming beforehand to a sport specific very much power-based programming that was very intellectually made so that it was recovery based as well. So, it was high volume for a couple of weeks and then there was a week of recovery where you did lower volume and just had that healing and then you would go back up. Depending on the time of year, we would do different movements. So, in the winter months you could definitely test your body for a summer sport, whereas in the summer months, you'd like to ease off and allow for your body to be the best opportunity to throw well for me.

No, absolutely.  I had talked about you being a Paralympic athlete or in para sports. I totally forgot because I've known you for a lot of years and I just don't really care about it myself, however, the listeners just might want to know what is the challenge that you have in life? Can you also explain a bit about the category system that goes with the track and field athletes and what classification that you're in?

Yes, of course. So, for me, my physical disability is called Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral palsy is a neurological impairment; at birth, I was two months premature, I had three strokes on the left side of my brain and from when I was born, the right side of my body has been mildly weaker than the left side. There are different variations of Cerebral Palsy. I'm a hemiplegia, which means one side of the body is affected and the other side is not where there's different levels of impairment for that. For Paralympic sports it could be neurological impairments, it could be an amputation, it could be a spinal cord injury, but there's lots of opportunity and adaptations for you to excel in.

In track and field, they have a classification system. The classification system divides everybody on their disability to allow for you to compete with someone across the world that has the exact same if not similar impairment as you. So, in my classification there's T for track and F for field. So, I'm a field athlete in discus; I am an F38 athlete. There's 31 to 38, 31 being lower neurological impairment, 38 being the highest neurological impairment. I have people in my classification that are here in North America, South America and Europe. It’s hard to describe how unbelievable it is to have the opportunity to compete with people that have the same adaptations as me and to fall into something that's above and beyond what your expectations would be.

Renee Foessel Paralympic Games 2016

Now, as far as training goes there are some para-athletes that do need accommodations in order to be able to do an exercise. Do you need any such accommodations? And if so, can you talk a little bit about them and how they accommodate that?

Of course, I think no matter who you are, you always need adaptations. For me, I most definitely need to adapt when it comes to my working out and lifting and my running. It's just about being aware of your body and what it needs. When I had first got involved into fitness and now into lifting, it was important to understand that everybody does it differently. For me, when I'm doing movements, we can look at, for example, a bench press with a bar. My right side is weaker than my left side. So, if I am doing it with the bar, I got to watch to not compensate with the left side and ignore the right side. If I were to do an isolated movement, like a dumbbell bench press, I am lifting probably 10, if not 15 pounds heavier on my left side than my right side, and that is okay because that is what my body allows for me and I'm working towards something on making equality for that. So, for me, it was just important to kind of tear down the mentality that everybody's the same. It's important to know that you are working for this for yourself and I have adapted my workouts and recovery based on what I need; and recovery is very different as well with my disability.

During your Paralympic career, or just your field career what are one or two things that you have learned that kind of stick out the most to you?
Could you be a bit more specific? In general or?

Yeah. Do you have certain philosophies, or you had talked about how your mindset is changing in regard to “you're not like everybody else and that's okay.” And how you're different and you're going to adapt exercises. So, to me that would be one thing, where you've changed your mindset and that's probably been a big thing for you to overcome. So, is there anything like that?
Yeah, so I think that there has been an enormous amount of change. My philosophy now versus my philosophy even a couple of years ago, you're right, has significantly changed. Now, I kind of have this outlook and I remind myself that it's important to know that what you're doing, you're always bending, you're always being tangible to what you're doing, and you're never breaking. You’re always prepared to make a change. It’s a big aspect of your mindset, that positive outlook. So, if something maybe didn't work out the way it’s supposed to go, that's okay, because it's setting you up to be resilient for something else in the future. So, I think that my look on resiliency and making sure that if you stray off path, it's okay, you're going to make your way back in. It’s important to know that you can rely on yourself but rely on support systems around you. I think growing up, I've learned in general, but of course to my fitness goals, that you have to be willing to lean on others and support others and have other support.

Oh, for sure. What is support to you? Is it listening to somebody or talking with somebody? What’s your idea of support?

I think the idea of support is being open to listening to somebody else, whatever the conversation might be, support is hearing somebody out. Even if you don't agree, just knowing that that's okay because I'm going to be willing to listen to you and if you need help, I'll be there for you. Support could even be as far as just reminding somebody else of the other side of things, a different perspective on what they're looking at. Support comes in so many different ways, and it depends on what you need. So for me, I think my best regard of support is just knowing that if I do need to lean on somebody, a family, a friend, they will be there in whatever regard that they're capable of.

That’s an absolutely great answer. Can you tell the listeners, because I know that the Paralympics have been postponed and they're going to be in 2021, about your exercise routine from now up until the Paralympics and how you're going to prepare?

Of course. The postponement of the 2020 games was very difficult because it's a big change for an athlete, but it's a big change that happened in general with the world. The past couple months it's been a bit difficult because everybody's training environment has changed, and my training environment of course has done that as well. I'm very lucky to have some of the equipment that I do have available, but I've most definitely learned my limits when it comes to physical health and body workouts or other at home workouts. The internet has been a wonderful thing let me tell you! I'm very happy to be going back into a partial training environment where I'm capable of being with my coach as of Monday. So Monday is a very exciting day for me. So, my coach and I leading into 2021 is we're trying to keep the pace that we have going right now.

I do have a bit of recovery in August where I'll be doing lower power volume lifting, and we're going to focus from now until about January on my nutrition, trying to increase protein intake and muscle mass. We're trying to focus on the lifting to create that muscle mass and power so that I can really just whip the disc out there. Then from February until pretty much the trials, which should be in July, that's when it starts with competition season, we're hoping to do some training. Usually we go out to Florida, but depending on the travel restrictions, and of course what's best for the world at that point, we would even look at traveling within our beautiful country Canada and finding the best training environment to really push forward and get as many throws in as a can at the games so that I can hopefully race to the podium.

I have every confidence in the world that you are going to be able to go on the podium this time once 2021 happens and selfishly, I hope that you don't train in Florida because as of today there's 10,000 Coronavirus cases out there. So selfishly, I don't want you to go out there because I don't even want to even if there is the slightest chance that you may get it, I don’t want you to get it Renee.

Yep, and we're planning for staying within Canada and making it the best that we can. That's for sure, because if there is any risk at all, it's not worth it.

Renee Foessel competes in the women's F38 discus final

Absolutely. Now, and I might've asked this before, but do you have any other philosophies or sayings that you go by in life? As an example, one of mine is that everyone has challenges, some are just more noticeable than others. Do you have any that you have?

I love that actually, I really enjoyed that, thank you for sharing. I think something that I repeat personally to myself is “head up, chin down.” So, your heads held high, you are proud, you are pushing forward and positive, but keep your chin down focused on the important aspects of what you're doing and focusing in on what those goals are in hand.

That's amazing. Can you let the listeners know where they can follow your journey maybe on social media, in case they want to be able to cheer you on over the next few months until you get to the Paralympics?

Of course, I would love that. Thank you. My main source of social media is through Instagram. That's where I share a lot of my journey leading up to the Paralympic games. My Instagram is @raayfoe, Raay’s a nickname I have and Foe is short for Foessel. I do participate in Twitter; leading up to the games, I will be doing a lot of Twitter updates. So, for Twitter @RFoessel, I could spell that phonetically if you need me to!

Oh, that's okay. We'll make sure that we get your details up on the website when we get this on the Fitness For All websites. We’ll get the spelling there and they can also grab it from there. I know you personally, Renee, ever since you came, I think to that very first field practice. I also, one of the first things I remember is Ken Hall, who I believe is still your throw coach?

Yes. The best coach in the world.

There you go. I remember him getting you to roll the discus and he kept making you roll the discus. That was, we won't say how many years ago, but that was quite a few years ago. It was an amazing feeling, and I can only imagine what it was for you when you were at the Paralympics, because we were all at an establishment that we'll say, serves chocolate milk and cheering you on. To see how many people came out and supported you and watched you, it's just a testament to the person that you are, that has such great character; you’re just so good with everybody at the end of the day and you treat them as an equal and that's, what's so great about you.

Well, Cam I can let you know that I remember even before the field, when I was doing sledge hockey. I’m absolutely so warm and fulfilled hearing about having all the supports I have and none of this journey would be possible without everybody, without the club, without my family, friends, my coach and yourself. Knowing that you guys were cheering me on was is what really pushed me and part of me wishes that I could have been in that establishment watching with you guys.

Well, maybe what we'll do year when you get the gold is that we'll make sure that we videotape the whole thing and then you can watch it when you come home. So, there you go.

Well, thank you and thank you for allowing me to have this opportunity with you.

Oh, absolutely! So, everyone that was Renee Foessel. She is a Paralympian who was going to be going to the 2021 Paralympic games and make sure that you do follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Renee, it has been a pleasure having you on the show and thanks so much for being on it.

Thank you so much.

We'll talk to you again. Thanks so much.

Contact Renee Foessel at:

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