If gold medals were awarded for dedication, courage and humour, 2010 Paralympian Mary Benson would own the podium.
Like her fellow athletes, Benson, 49, of South Surrey has had to overcome some life-altering obstacles.
With her sunny disposition and infectious laugh, you would never know Benson suffered a serious brain injury after experiencing what she calls a “severe allergic reaction” to anti-smoking medication nearly a decade ago.
“It was just a really bizarre and freaky occurrence,” she recalls. “It did insane things to my brain. It was almost like an electrocution or something. It just zapped out.”
The incident left part of her left frontal lobe and a portion of her brain stem injured, forcing her to learn how to walk and talk again.
“The good news is I did quit smoking,” she laughs.
But smoking was the least of her worries as Benson began trying to rebuild her life through extensive rehabilitation for the many neuroligical issues she faced.
It was during her stint in GF Strong Rehabilitation Hospital that Benson got involved in cross-country skiing after a therapist suggested she take part in a program for people with disabilities.
At first Benson was apprehensive. “I was like, ‘No way!’ At that point I couldn’t walk down the street by myself,” she points out.
But Benson soon gave in. “I decided to go and watch. I wasn’t even going to give it a try because it terrified me. But once I got there and put my skis on I felt ‘Wow! I’ve got my life back!'”
Skiing became Benson’s ticket to personal freedom, giving her the power of movement she had lost after her injury. “It totally gave me mobility. I could feel the wind on my face, I could move fast again. It was total independence, something I could do on my own.”
An avid athlete — she played road hockey as a kid growing up on the Prairies, was captain of her ice hockey team in Winnipeg and played on several of the Mabel League’s lesbian fast-pitch softball teams after moving to BC in the mid-1980s — Benson wasted no time getting back into sports and competing in international and national cross-country skiing competitions.
She won a silver medal at this year’s Paralympic Nordic ski nationals in Alberta and placed eighth in the Paralympic World Cup in Germany. She made Canada’s 2010 Nordic-Cross Paralympic Ski Team in February.
She credits her partner, Kathy Oxner, for getting her into Paralympic skiing. “She has helped me like no one else and cares about me like no one else,” Benson writes on her blog.
“She will be the first face I look for when I cross the finish line, because she was the one who got me to the start line.”
Benson came out to her coaches and teammates right away. “I really didn’t have any issues,” she says. “Everybody was very accepting.”
“It’s important to be out because it is who I am,” she explains. “I’m an athlete, I’m a good friend to people, I’m married, I’m one of a very large family, I’m all these different things, and I’m also a lesbian. It’s just who I am.”
“I didn’t want to pretend I was something different,” she adds.
As open as Benson is, she also understands why many athletes stay in the closet.
“I’m not really surprised if they don’t come out, especially if they’re younger,” she says. “Sponsors always want that boy or girl next door and I don’t think people necessarily see wholesome when they talk about gays or lesbians.”
There is still homophobia in sports, she says. “I think people try to pretend there isn’t.”
Even she occasionally feels ostracized, she admits. “It is mostly just a feeling you have from some people.”
She remembers a former coach who confessed to being “a little homophobic.”
“A little?” she replied. “Is that like being a little pregnant?”
Although being an openly lesbian athlete is an important part of her identity, Benson says her sexuality does not define her sports career. “I’m in the Paralympics because I’m an elite athlete,” she notes. “I’m not in the Paralympics because I am a gay or lesbian person.”