TOKYO — Haley Daniels fought for 12 years for the same Olympic opportunity that has been afforded men for the past 85. There were moments when Daniels almost lost hope it would ever happen.
The magnitude of the moment hit the 30-year-old from Calgary as she sat in her boat Wednesday. It was made infinitely more special by the presence of her transgender trailblazing dad Kimberly.
Daniels didn't advance out of the qualifying heats of the women's C-1 canoe slalom at the sun-drenched Kasai Slalom Centre, but women's canoe is making its Olympic debut in Tokyo - finally - and the Canadian was among a group of athletes fighting for its inclusion for years.
"I was really calm at the start line. But I heard the announcer say, "Jane Nicholas is the first ever woman to go down an Olympic course.' And I thought, 'I'm going to be the fourth.'
"I just can't believe we're actually here. I wish today went better, and I wish that I could fight for a medal. I was told not to say this, but I want to say this: I feel grateful to just be at the Olympics. I know we are always fighting for results, but I've had to fight for 12 years just to get here. And so being here is really special for me."
Daniels' dad, meanwhile, is also making history as an openly transgender official at an Olympics. Kimberly Daniels had planned to come out as a woman after the Games, but when the Olympics were pushed back a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she arrived in Tokyo as a woman, with Haley's support.
"When I think back about my experience as an athlete, I never put it on paper that I wanted to leave a legacy, or I want to be a pioneer, but when you put your head down and follow your passion, my dad and I just became firsts today," Haley Daniels said. "And that’s really special."
Kimberly has been an international slalom judge since 2009, and is a course judge in Tokyo. They'd talked on the phone the previous evening about the potential for distraction.
"She just said that, 'I'm gonna be there, but I'm here to do a job, and so are you,'" Haley said. "When I was at that start line, I had completely forgotten my dad was there. I knew she was there in spirit, but I was focused on the job I had to do."
Father and daughter — Haley still calls Kimberly "dad" — announced the news this past fall. In a touching Instagram post, Haley wrote: "Surprise - HE IS A GIRL!" Haley and Kimberly chronicled their experiences in Team Canada blog posts.
"The reason we chose to scream together from the rooftops is because we believe it is important to live as our true authentic selves and own who we are," Haley wrote.
"Our family has never settled for mediocrity. We always strive for excellence in everything we do. I have been fighting for gender equality for most of my career and now my dad is a transgender woman."
In her blog post, Kimberly wrote about feeling trapped in a boy's body since she was seven, but it was the 1960s, when "the world then was not a safe place for transgender people."
Haley would love both of them to be at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Talking to reporters in the sizzling 30 C heat, Haley was close to tears a couple of times over her qualifying runs. A costly 50-second penalty on the second run - incurred when a canoeist goes through a gate upside down - ensured that she wouldn't advance out of the heats.
Men's canoe has been a part of the Olympic program since 1936, and Haley was among a group of international paddlers pressuring the International Canoe Federation for gender equity. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee announced it was replacing some men's paddling events with women's. In sprint canoe, the women's C-1 200 and C-2 500 replaced the C-1 200 and K-2 200 on the men's side. In slalom, the men's C-2 was removed in place of the women's C-1.
Did she ever doubt she'd get to the Games?
"Oh yeah, I definitely was even skeptical (in 2016) that we would be in the Olympics," she said. "And there are still people who do not think that we should be gender equal and that women's canoe is not ready. But the thing is, you have to support them to get better. I think that this fight has been hard. But now it's not a fight. We're working together. And all of these women out here are amazing."
Canada is a gold-medal threat in women's sprint canoe. Laurence Vincent Lapointe is a 13-time world champion, while Katie Vincent recently edged the veteran at the Canadian trials. The two also have a pair of world titles together in the C-2 500 metres.
It's unfortunate that no fans could be on site when history was made Wednesday. Because of the state of emergency in Tokyo amid rising COVID-19 cases, the picturesque 7,500-seat venue, which sits in the shadow of a giant ferris wheel, was all but empty.
"I had envisioned what this moment would feel like for the last 12 years, I visualized what that start line would be like, what it would feel like to walk into the opening ceremonies, and I thought I would cry, I thought I would feel my heart jumping out of my chest," Haley said. "I really hope that the next Olympics, we can find a way for there to be people there cheering because it is so special, and they're just as excited as we are."
After many stressful weeks of travelling and competing in Europe to qualify for an Olympic berth - she clinched her spot in late-May - Haley plans to take a month off to relax and see family and friends. Kimberly is the only family member Haley has seen in months, but because of strict COVID-19 protocols in Tokyo, particularly among officials, it will be a few days before they can hug.
"I saw my dad a couple days ago and all I wanted to do was hug her. And I couldn't. And I had to go home and cry on my own for a little bit," Haley said. "I cannot wait to go hug my dad, it's gonna be really cool. She has to be very careful also because she needs to be judging until the end. But when we get back to Canada? Big embrace."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press