When George Quarcoo immigrated to Canada from Ghana in 2007, aged 12, he never thought he would become one of Canada’s fastest T12 (visually impaired) sprinters.
Wearing only jeans and a t-shirt, Quarcoo – along with his father and three siblings – walked out of the airport in Toronto on that crisp November day, filled with all the hope and anxiety that comes with new beginnings.
“Coming to Canada was different but having our dad with us made it easier,” the now 21-year-old said. “The hardest thing we had to get used to was the weather.”
After surviving his first snowfall, which came less than 24 hours later, Quarcoo was soon enrolled in the W. Ross McDonald school for the visually impaired, where he was exposed to various opportunities for the disabled. “Back home if you have a disability you are kind of babied, but here in Canada, I’m taught to be independent,” he said.
Although grateful to his adopted country, which he says will be his home for the rest of his life, Quarcoo still has fond memories of the distinct sounds and familial environment he left back in Accra.
“In Ghana, you have people who you know and love around you all the time,” Quarcoo reminisced. “You could step out of your house or property, sit under a tree and chat with friends and family in the community. There was always music blaring in the background. The whole atmosphere and feel of the place is just different from Canada.”
However, Quarcoo also acknowledges the fact that in Canada he has been afforded the opportunity through school to be exposed to para-sports such as wrestling, swimming, baseball, hockey, and athletics. It was the latter which he developed his greatest passion for.
“I always wanted to run track [competitively] but didn’t know how to go about getting started until I met coach Craig Blackman of I Be Fast track club,” said Quarcoo. “Track is really the sport that made me the most confident in myself.”
At 16 years old, he was discovered at a school track meet by Blackman, who invited him out to practice and connected him with his first guide runner, Adam Johnson. But Quarcoo’s excitement about his new training program and guide came to a halt weeks later when he received an email from the club outlining the fees he was required to pay in order to continue.
Quarcoo says his parents were not supportive of him becoming an athlete at first, due to fear that his disability would cause him to get hurt. “I didn’t really bring the finances up with my dad because I knew he wouldn’t really agree with me doing sports. I just stopped coming to practice and didn’t reply to the email.”
It was a full two years before he and Blackman reconnected at the very same track meet when the sprinter was 18 years old. “I told [Blackman] about the financial situation,” Quarcoo explained. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, just come out and run.'”
Quarcoo began training regularly with Blackman in 2013, and very quickly went from running 30 seconds over 200 metres to running Canadian T12 records in the 100 -metre and 200-metre sprints, before going on to represent Canada at the 2015 Parapan Am Games.
He started working with new guide Dimitry Issajenko at the end of last year, whom he reset his Canadian records with in July running the 100 metres in 11.49 seconds and the 200 metres in 23.57 seconds.
With all the media attention he garnered over the past two years, Quarcoo says that convincing his parents that his involvement in sport is a good thing has become a lot easier.
“My mother [who still lives in Ghana] found out I had an ankle sprain once and told me to quit,” Quarcoo recounted. “I told her that with every sport comes injuries, so I’m not quitting. Thankfully, with my success, they understand it more now and are proud of me.”
Hopes were high that given his accomplishments on the national level, Quarcoo would make Canada’s 2016 Paralympic team in Rio. Unlike the Olympics athletics team, the selection process is a complex and somewhat political system based on points, rankings and scores, which takes athletes from all 26 disability classifications into consideration.
Unfortunately, despite a world ranking of 13th in his 100 metres category, Quarcoo wasn’t picked for the small 24-athlete Canadian roster.
“I just want to try to run even faster next year to see if I can make it to [next year’s] World Championships in London,” Quarcoo said. “We were already so close this year, so why give up now.”
Aside from having the goal to represent Canada at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Quarcoo has a greater ambition that transcends his career as an athlete.
“I want to change the way they see people with disabilities in Ghana. I want to start a para-team there one day. I’m pretty sure there are lots of people that want to do sport, but they don’t have enough people with the knowledge on how to deal with disabilities. I would also like to bring different impairment aids to people in Ghana so that in the future, anyone with a disability who wants to do something that they like, will know that they can.”
So while you enjoy the many athletes competing at the Rio Paralympics, spare a thought for George Quarcoo. His chance at being a Paralympian hasn’t come around yet, but it’s likely to only be a matter of time.
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Wendy-Ann Clarke is a sports writer and multimedia journalist based out of Toronto, Canada. As a former track athlete, she specialises in athletics coverage and is one of only a handful of women of colour in her industry. She is currently in Rio, Brazil covering the Paralympic Games. Twitter: @WendyAnnRuns
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