By: Mariana Monzon
A partial amputation ended the dream to compete Nationally as a gymnast, but cancer did not prevent nineteen-year-old Erica Scarff from continuing to be an inspiring Paralympic athlete.
“Erica did it! She is off to the A final at the Paralympics. Tomorrow morning is the race for the medals.” said a member of the Balmy Beach Club that facilitated Erica’s training for the Paralympics. Erica competed in the Final round of the Women’s KL3 200-metre Paracanoe sprint on September 15, finishing in seventh place at the Lagoa Stadium in Rio De Janeiro.
At age four, Erica identified herself as “Erica the gymnast” and felt that gymnastics was her world. In 2008, a few weeks before her twelfth birthday, the award-winning gymnast was going to jump to a provincial competitive level, but an unexpected diagnosis would end her dream.
She was running to a vault when the distal femur on her right leg broke. After being referred to an orthopedic pediatrician and enduring a variety of tests, SickKids hospital relayed the news to Erica and her family that the biopsy returned positive for cancer. Her gymnast lifestyle shifted dramatically as a diagnosis of Osteosarcoma reeled her into a new reality.
“When the surgeon told me I was going to get my leg amputated, the first thing I asked was if I was going to be able to do gymnastics again. It was always about gymnastics, that was my whole life back then,” Erica said.
Relating herself with Terry Fox, the bone cancer forced her to get a partial amputation. Although the surgery led to the end of her gymnast career, in grade 10 she continued to pursue her love for the sport by coaching at Futures Gymnastics. But coaching was not enough for Erica, the determined athlete worked hard to adjust to her body and looked for a new athletic goal to dedicate her mind and time to.
“I think she wondered what she could do, because she was always active, competitive, and challenging herself,” her mother, Carmela Scarff said. She laughed softly in admiration and added, “Erica had said, ‘okay what do I have to do, and let’s do it.’ That was her remark. She was the one who had cancer, but I was the one who got all my strength from Erica.”
“I was trying to find a sport that worked for me. I tried swimming, biking, and a few other sports,” Erica recounted, “but found none that I wanted to dedicate my full time to.”
The days of searching came to an end when on a prosthetic leg appointment she found what she had been looking for. At the appointment, she saw one of her friends with his coach to get fitted for kayaking.
Mari Ellery, a teacher by profession has been coaching Para-athletes since 1982 and has been a part of the Balmy Beach PaddleALL program since 2010. Ellery spoke with Erica and her mom about the program and they were intrigued by the sport.
Ellery has done wheelchair paddling for almost four years and has coached ten people in that time. She is overjoyed that Erica will be the fourth world champion to have trained under her instruction. Carmela is just as enthused and could not be prouder of Erica’s advancement into the higher ranks of her newfound sport.
Cancer was simply a pit stop for the courageous athlete. Erica is a Paralympian who has been Canada’s Champion CanoeKayaker for the last two years. The National Team also ranked her an LTA athlete.
“It’s not an easy sport to get, and it can take up to ten years to fully develop your pattern strokes. She was getting it quiet quickly and that’s when I knew she had great potential,” Ellery said observing Erica’s athletic skill.
Erica had found more than a sport, she had found her sanctuary. She felt that when she found kayaking, it easily adapted with her body.
“When I’m in a boat, I’m the same as anyone with two legs. I don’t really think about my disability,” she said.
Erica had begun her training two and half years ago and was excelling as a fast learner. Ellery saw her advancing pace as an exciting opportunity for Erica to reach higher competitive levels within the sport.
“My coach is awesome,” said Erica about Ellery, “She’s knowledgeable, but what made me so successful is the amount of time she dedicated to training me. Six days a week in the morning and afternoons, she’d let me stay at her house because the training facility is really far from me. She would even cook food for me, and she doesn’t even get paid to do it.”
Erica began Kayaking for exercise, athletics, and most of all to have a goal. But once external pressures noticed her skill level— such as her coach and the National team— she started training a lot harder; doing lots of weights and lots of off-season training.
“I trained a lot this past summer, and although pushing myself is hard, it’s easy because it’s something I love doing and something I’m grateful I have the opportunity to do,” Erica explained.
For her first competition, Erica went to the world championships, which took place in Milan, Italy. The top six qualified for the Paralympics and out of the fourteen competitors she came close arriving in seventh place.
But it didn’t end there for the rising Paralympian; there was a second round of qualifiers, which took place in Duisburg, Germany this past summer. With an abundance of cheers and support rooting her on, Erica moved forward into the Paralympics.
“The Canadian Paralympic team has really invested in her. They invited her to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to test the Paralympic race course, even before she qualified for the Paralympics,” said Carmela.
Erica’s focus is on racing for the 200 meter Sprint Kayak. Ellery comments that Erica would prefer a race with a longer distance, but for this Para event it’s only 200 meters.
As of now, her time is 53 seconds, compared to her time last year, which was around one minute. She dropped seven seconds, and her coach believes that she’s going to be even faster this year because of her consistent weight training.
“The whole idea behind the two hundred meter race is to be fast,” said Ellery, “you have to be strong and fit and do a lot of weights in order to have the fast twitch muscles that will help get you down the course the fastest.”
For Erica, sports aren’t just fitness and exercise. She feels she is a very philosophical person when it comes to analyzing why it is that she is so drawn to sports.
“For me, sports are really good for my mental state. Just to have that focus. It sort of grounds everything else in my life.”
Her bright smile and positive attitude captures Erica’s humble stance towards her achievements and life goals. Her right metal leg is no longer an obstacle, but a physical reminder for her to continue to push herself to do the best she can in her rowing, as well as her student life.
Erica is a Third year University student at Brock who is aspiring to be a physiotherapist in order to help people with their rehabilitation. Another reason she chose to do sports is to give hope and inspire others to become more active. She became fully aware of the significant role sports have played in her life when she was trying to decide her major.
“Kinesiology, this looks interesting. I realized this was perfect; my whole life revolves around sports, so it would only be natural to study this,” Erica said and further explained, “I chose the major because I am fascinated by the human body. I think that exercise and sports can be so impactful in people’s lives and I think they should be encouraged to try it.”
Besides her studies and athletic routines, Erica has participated in fundraising for the Canadian Cancer Society as well as being their spokesperson to raise cancer awareness.
For her thirteenth birthday in 2009, her family friend started up the organization “Erica’s Wish” with Erica and her mom. The organization raised over $40,000 by 2013 for Osteosarcoma research studies.
Apart from funding research, the trio used “Erica’s Wish” to buy 30 blankets a month for children diagnosed with cancer. The warm blue and fuzzy blanket has brought comfort to kids thrown into an unfamiliar and scary situation.
The cancer world, although dark, has impacted Erica’s life in many positive ways. When she was thirteen Erica went to Camp Oochigeas, a camp for kids with cancer. In this place she felt normal and was understood by other children who went through similar trials. The isolation in the hospital and the overall isolation from society disappeared within the sanctuary of the magnificent lake water and tall thin trees.
“At Ooch I came out of my comfort zone, cause I was always really shy, I still am, but it helped me grow; be more sociable and more outgoing. Over the years I met a lot of people and friends,” said Erica with a fond smile.
“Erica and I met in 2013. We went on a few canoe trips together and she’s honestly one of the greatest people I have ever met,” said Chandini Maharaja a friend from Oochigeas, “she always brightens up my day and is always thinking about others. Her talents are a bonus to all the amazing things she’s done.”
After some years at Oochigeas, Erica transitioned into the leadership program where she learned how to run a canoe trip, how to grow as a leader and make connections with people.
Last year she attended the CanoeKayak Canada Summit in Ottawa as the paddling representative for the Paralympic sport. Her coach Ellery believes that she will be able to improve the sport for other people as she is young and is enthusiastic to make a change.
“The way I see it, I’m just naturally an athlete, that’s what my body wants to do. I’m an athlete. Regardless of what sport I do, it’s sort of the same principles; hard work, determination, and pushing your body.”