From Cuba to Canada to the World stage in Mississauga

By Frank Christie

For Papito Wilson, the 2023 World Rowing Indoor Championships couldn’t come at a better time, so he can once again prove himself against the best Para athletes in the world.

Wilson, who moved to Canada from his native Cuba in the early 2000’s, is no stranger to competing on the world stage. He is a Paralympian in rowing and has competed at the international level in several sports. He lives and trains in Toronto and like many rowing enthusiasts in the area, can’t wait to compete close to home, while also welcoming the world to Mississauga.

“I’ve competed in indoor rowing in Mississauga before and I really liked it,” said Wilson. “It’s exciting to have my kids and my friends there to watch me compete and it’s going to be a great event. I want to show everyone from other countries how great Canada is. I can’t wait for this event, I’m so excited.”

“This past summer, I wasn’t feeling good,” said Wilson explaining his recent return to rowing. “I was feeling a little depressed. I reached out to my old coach Rebecca, and she said you know what Papito, just come row. It’s not about how you finish, just come to enjoy it. I got out there and felt like I had never stopped rowing. It took a little to remember the technique and commands, but it felt great to be back.”

Wilson’s enthusiasm for indoor rowing and sport in general is contagious. Quick with a smile and a kind word for his coaches and training partners, he’s feeling much better these days as he reflects on an athletic career that has seen him travel the world and test himself in a wide variety of sports. He lost his leg in an industrial accident at the age of 20 and was a member of the Cuban national team for wheelchair basketball before moving to Canada in 2001. After he arrived, he was unexpectedly introduced to rowing and soon discovered a passion for the sport.

“When I came to Canada, I was hungry for sport,” said Wilson. “I said to myself I want to make the national team for Canada no matter what sport. I tried wheelchair basketball because of my background, but it was hard because of the language barrier. I went to the practices, but it didn’t really work out. A good friend of mine talked to me about the rowing program. I went to try it out and I realized how difficult rowing was. There’s no easy sport in life. I pushed hard though it and figured out this is my opportunity. Rowing gave me a lot of discipline and all the hard work I put in was worth it.”

Wilson picked up the sport quickly and just one year after rowing his first stroke teamed with mixed doubles partner Caitlin Renneson to win a bronze medal at the 2007 World Rowing Championships. One year later he was competing at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, an experience he has a hard time describing.

“To be honest, I still don’t have any words,” said Wilson. “It’s hard for me to describe the feeling of being at the Paralympics with the top athletes from around the world. It was beyond good. Just amazing.”

After reaching the pinnacle of rowing in Beijing, Wilson stepped away from the sport and found success in several others. He competed at a world championship in canoeing, set the Canadian records in shotput and discus for his classification (which he still holds), and took up wheelchair tennis and sitting volleyball. He’s also planning on getting back into wheelchair basketball and taking another crack at the national team, but those plans are currently on hold while he pursues indoor rowing.

Wilson rowed at the Argonaut Rowing Club in Toronto this summer with Coach Rebecca Orr and a group of Para rowers. He’s not the only Para rower excited about the 2023 World Rowing Indoor Championships, as Orr can attest.

“A few weeks ago, I mentioned the World Rowing Indoor Championships to the Para-rowing group at Argos and their eyes lit up,” said Orr. “They were all very interested in it and wanted to hear more about it. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for Para athletes from around the world to showcase their skills on the erg and compete against each other. Whether they are going for personal bests or trying to compete for a medal, it’s going to be a great event.”

WRICH 2023 will feature PR1, PR2, and PR3 categories, which will be offered in-person and virtually, for nationally or internationally classified athletes. Asked what he enjoys most about indoor rowing, Wilson elaborates on two things: the planning and the intensity.

“For both on-water and indoor rowing, you need to have a race plan,” said Wilson. “You need to know how you’re going to execute the race. What you’re going to do for the first 500m, second 500m, and how you’re going to finish. That’s what I like the most, preparing and executing. Also, the intensity. You finish with nothing left in your tank. It’s a great feeling.”

With just over three months left before the 2023 WRICH, there’s time to train, plan, and be ready to execute the race, no matter what personal goals an athlete has set. Wilson is looking forward to participating with the top Olympians and Paralympians as well as more recreational athletes. Like he always does, Wilson has the drive to compete and high hopes when he participates on his home soil in February.

“Whatever I do, I’m going to do it to the best of my best ability. I respect everyone who competes,” said Wilson with a smile. “But you know what, I’m not just going to be OK with my personal best, I want to earn it. I want a medal.”