Marissa PAPACONSTANTINOU (CAN) places 6th in the 100m T44 final at the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships

What does it mean to be an influencer?

In a society where the word is thrown around everywhere on social media, Paralympian and Canadian record-holder Marissa Papaconstantinou says that being an influencer is to do things that positively inspire others.

In her case, she is able to do that on the track, and she continues to share her experiences to become a role model off the track as well.

“Influence means to have a positive impact on someone and to change their perspective or views on how they see things,” said Papaconstaninou. “My influence is to inspire others and to make them believe that if I can do it, they can do it too.”

The 20 year-old has already made an impact on and off the track. Receiving her running blade for her right foot at an early age, Papaconstaninou never let that stop her from achieving her goals, always with the goal of competing at the Paralympic Games.

Her goal become reality when she was named to the 2016 Canadian Paralympic team in Rio de Janeiro as a 16 year-old. Being there for those Games, the T64 100- and 200-metre Canadian record-holder says that it propels her to be even more daring in pursuit of her goals.

Currently preparing for the WPA World Para-Athletics Championships to be held in Dubai, UAE, her 2019 season consisted of a record-breaking performance in Switzerland but was derailed by an injury. The ups and downs of the 2019 season haven’t affected her mindset heading into Dubai.

“After coming off a great Grand Prix, I tore my hamstring tendon on my left side that took me away from running for 10 weeks,” said Papaconstantinou, who as a result pulled out of the Canadian Championships and the Pan American Games. “Given all of the circumstances, I’m feeling confident that I will perform when the time comes. It’s all about having a positive mindset going into this competition.”

Coming back from injury isn’t something new for Papaconstantinou, who experienced a three-centimetre tear in her right hamstring at the 2017 World Championships. All of her experiences have made her who is she is, but she stops just short of letting those experiences define her.

“I’ve never let my disability completely define the person I am. It’s a part of me, but not it doesn’t make everything I am,” said Papaconstantinou, who is studying at Ryerson University’s RTA Sport Media program. “Having said that, it is a big part of who I am. My prosthetics blade enables me to do everything that any other person can in everyday life. That piece of equipment, although it doesn’t define who I am, makes who I am as a whole, allowing me to compete at the highest level, break barriers, and to strive for better and faster every day.”

Becoming an influential athlete, looking to earn her spot in next year’s 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Papaconstantinou remembers the first time she met her own role model, Paralympian Stefanie Reid at a conference and the numerous times afterwards at the hospital during her early visits as a child.

Her interactions with the former Canadian Paralympian long jumper, now representing Great Britain, showed her what it took to get to the top level of this sport and Papaconstantinou wants to replicate what Reid did for her for the next generation of athletes.

“As a young athlete just starting out in this sport, I was really lucky to have a role model like Stefanie Reid because I was able to see myself in a position where I could be one day,” said Papaconstantinou. “I saw her compete at a really high level, as an athlete with a prosthetic leg, in a running blade, that was important to me and I was able to set a pathway to where I wanted and believe I could go.”

“Now, as I’ve kind of taken on that position as role model I think it is really important to set that example where younger girls and boys who might be in the same position as me or might not know what they want to do, I can help them find that pathway for themselves or inspire them to do something completely unrelated and do something different for themselves.”

Her impact has also been felt at the high school she attended as well. In 2017, Bill Crothers Secondary School in Markham, Ont., painted a mural of her on one of their walls in the school, after her international debut performances. To be forever remembered on the wall at her high school, Papaconstantinou credits them for getting her out of her shell and becoming comfortable as who she is.

“For them to put up that mural of me in the school is definitely an honour,” said Papaconstanou, who also competed on their soccer team. “Being honoured at Bill Crothers is something I am very proud of now. The fact I can say I went to that school and they’ve gotten me to where I am today.”

Her impact in sports has also led to her to becoming one of the latest athletes to join the Nike family, announced earlier this month.

“Signing with Nike was a really great stepping stone in my career and for representation of para-athletes in Canada,” said Papaconstantinou. “I believe that it’ll allow for more and more people to be aware of the Paralympics by being next to athletes on such a major platform. That’s what the Paralympic movement needs and I think it’ll continue to build its platform the more people know about it.”

As much as her impact is growing on and off the track, she also knows not to get ahead of herself. Her focus remains on being prepared for the World Para-Athletics Championships in Dubai from November 7-15.

“I’ve given Tokyo so much thought because as soon as Worlds are over, we’re only eight-months away from Tokyo,” said Papaconstantinou. “It’s on the top of my mind but I have to think one step at a time, can’t get too ahead of myself, because the goal is to medal at Worlds right now, but Tokyo is definitely burning at the back of my mind.”

That’s the end goal for her. Until then, she continues to put in the work, inspiring and influencing athletes and fans along the way.