Moose Jaw Christian Women's Club
June 18, 2001
Good evening everyone! It is certainly a pleasure to be here. I must say that I was very surprised when I was asked to be here tonight. When I was much younger, my mother would invite me to attend the banquets that were put on by the Christian Women’s club. Before I would agree to attend, I would always ask one question…."What are they serving for dinner?". If she answered liver, I would suddenly remember that I had a major assignment for school due the next day. Lucky for me they never served liver. The most memorable Christian Women’s event for myself was spent on the stage, not in the audience. I made my debut in the modeling profession on this very stage, wearing a gymnastic leotard and doing cartwheels up and down the runway. It’s no wonder why that profession never took off for me.
I will be the first to admit that I never dreamed I would someday speak at this event. But as it is, I was asked to share my Paralympic experience with you tonight. For you to truly appreciate what the experience meant to me, you have to know how the journey began. Nineteen years ago I was brought into this world and into a wonderful family. From a very early age, I demonstrated a love for sport which, I might add, would sometimes get me into trouble. I remember following my three older brothers down double black diamonds when we were skiing, and the times my eyes would water when we played baseball because they threw the ball so darn hard my hand would sting for days. But through it all, my family provided opportunities and the support to excel. Well, most of the time. I recall the time my brother got mad at me because I beat him at a game of basketball in front of his friends, but for the most part they were behind me 100 percent. Growing up with three much older brothers and two active parents provided me with plenty of opportunities to participate in sports.
As time passed, I exhausted all my energy into improving as an athlete. I played every sport you could imagine, but I felt the most comfortable on the basketball court. I progressed as a basketball player, and I would secretly pretend that I was Michael Jordan playing for Canada at the Olympics. It’s funny when I think about that now, because, well, Michael Jordan is American, and the last I checked he was not female. But I was young and I had found my true love – basketball that is, not Michael Jordan.
Then at the age of fourteen years, my perfect world came crashing down. I woke up one morning unable to move my legs. I was taken to the hospital where I underwent an eight-hour emergency operation that saved my life. When I came out of surgery I was completely paralyzed and in an intense amount of pain. Could you imagine waking up tomorrow morning and not being able to move? I never thought something like that could happen to me. With a lot of hard work, I eventually regained the use of my upper body.
Once I was able, I began to play wheelchair rugby and basketball. Then I was introduced to wheelchair racing…..and I have never looked back. I competed in the 1997 Jeux Canada Games just two months after I started racing. I only placed fourth in my events, but it was an amazing experience. I had a taste of what it was like to compete against the best in Canada, and I wanted more!
I began to train seriously, and three years later the hard work paid off. I was invited to try out for the Canadian team that would travel to Sydney for the 2000 Paralympics. Last August I successfully competed at the trials, and I was selected to represent Canada at the Games in October.
The Paralympics are the equivalent to the Olympics for the world’s top disabled athletes. The name Paralympics came from the work parallel – because they are held after the Olympics. The competition evolved from games that were organized in 1948 for disabled ex-servicemen in England. In 1960, the first Paralympics were held in Rome.
Paralympians compete in 18 sports, 14 of which are Olympic sports. The athletes take their sports very seriously, and it shows in the results. In some sports, the results are comparable to the accomplishments of Olympic athletes. A sprinter with an amputated leg, for example, ran the 100 meter just one second slower than Donovan Bailey’s world record performance. The Games are a demonstration of the abilities of people, and not their disabilities.
In October, I made the seventeen-hour flight to Sydney, and possibly the most inspiring event in my life. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the Paralympics. I had asked athletes that went to the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta what it was like, and the response was disappointing. I was told that the 1996 Paralympics were very poorly organized. In fact, many athletes described them as an insult. You see, the Paralympics are held three weeks after the Olympics, and the organizers in Atlanta felt that once the Olympics were done, they didn’t have to try to impress the athletes. When the Olympics were finished, they removed most of the entertainment and the facilities that were there to make the athletes stay comfortable.
When I arrived in Sydney, all the fears that I had vanished. As I got off the plane, I was surrounded by reporters as the media fought to talk to the Canadian athletes. The rest of the first day went extremely well. The athletes were quickly taken to the Olympic Village and shown around the city.
I stayed in a house in the Olympic Village with fifteen other members of the Canadian team. It was great….we were all slobs. When you entered the living room, all you could see was a pile of wheelchairs and tires and equipment that we dumped on the floor as soon as we got in. We called the residence home for three whole weeks. The village contained all four thousand of the athletes at the games, as well as coaches and officials. Each country had their own neighborhood, but we were able to socialize with other countries at the other facilities. There were plenty of things to do in the village, but the best part, in my opinion, was the cafeteria. It was open 24-7, and the selection of food was beyond belief. And it was free! I think that I spent half of my time there. I’m not sure if that really helped my performance, but I sure enjoyed my time there.
I was extremely busy in the three weeks that I spent in Sydney. Before my first race, I was busy training each day and doing interviews with the media. Oh, and I also spent a lot of time doing homework that I was missing. I was in my first year of engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, and when I told my professors that I would be missing a month of school, they chuckled to themselves and said "good luck catching up, you’re going to need it!". So while other athletes were out visiting the Sydney Operahouse, I was back in my room reading about the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus and Engineering Physics…..lots of fun stuff.
A week after we arrived in Sydney, the Opening Ceremonies were held. The event was mind-blowing. The Olympic Stadium was filled to it’s full capacity….over 120,000 people attended the ceremonies. When we entered the stadium, all of the athletes were paraded around the track, and the enormous crowd energized me. The thunder that erupted when the Australian team entered the stadium made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Then the party started. Australian performers and the familiar sounds from a didgerydoo entertained us.
Don’t ask me why, but the Canadian Olympic team brought a very large moose – similar to Mac the Moose – to Sydney with them. During the first week of the Paralympics, a few pranks were played, and our beloved Bruce the Moose was the subject of the most publicized prank. It seems that somebody thought it would be funny to kidnap Bruce while the Canadian team was at a welcome reception. When we returned to the village we were shocked and appalled to learn that Bruce was gone. In his place there was a ransom note. It stated that Bruce would be returned safe and sound if Canadian athletes would withdraw from competition. We refused, and hoped that he would eventually be returned safely. The media picked up on the story and it made headlines across Australia. A police investigation was conducted, and a reward was offered, but no progress was made. Finally, on the evening of the Opening Ceremonies, Bruce was found strapped to a forklift at the entrance of the Olympic Village. He was relatively unharmed, but we were outraged when we learned that he had been covered in paint and was wearing an Australian Flag around his neck. The moose weighing over 1000 pounds was eventually returned to his place on top of the Athlete’s Lounge, with 24-hour surveillance.
The kidnapping of Bruce was definitely exciting, but a few days later I experienced something much more moving. I competed in my first race – the 800 meter. I was honestly not expecting to win. Many of the women that were in Sydney had not been at any of the other races I had attended, so I was not sure what to expect in terms of a placing. I made it through the semifinal with the second fastest time, and the next day I competed in the final. I really wasn’t that nervous before the race because I knew that if I just did my best that would be fine. When the starter's gun went, the other competitors got off to a quick lead. I used my strength to catch up to the leader, and then I just sat back and waited for the right opportunity to make my move. It came with just under two hundred meters to go. I passed the girl from Japan, but she still managed to stay with me. As we came out of the final turn, we were neck and neck. I put my head down and concentrated on hand speed and strength. With less than 20 meters to go, I pulled ahead and won my first gold medal. The next few moments were exhilarating as I heard the encouragement from the crowd and did interviews for the media. Then I was whisked away for the medal ceremony that took place at the top of the Olympic Stadium. I was presented with the medal, and as the national anthem started, I was overcome with emotion. I remember thinking that just 4 years earlier I was lying in a bed completely paralyzed and hopeless. And at that moment I felt on top of the world. One of the images that I will carry with me forever is from that medal ceremony. My face was on the big screen in the stadium, and the Canadian flag was in the background blowing in the wind. Finally, my dream had been accomplished. With each subsequent medal I received, the feeling of accomplishment grew, but none of the other events quite lived up to that first race.
During my career as an athlete, I had always competed for myself, and never really thought about how it affected anybody else. One experience in Sydney made me realize that what I was doing had a much broader effect than I had realized. I was at the track one day warming up for a race and one of the Canadian coaches started talking to me and she mentioned that she had met my parents the day before. I thought about that for a minute, and I couldn’t quite figure out how they had been introduced. So I said, "Well, how did you know who they were?" She smiled and replied "Well, out of the 120,000 people that the stadium holds, they were the ones that were cheering the loudest." I couldn’t help but laugh at that comment because I knew that what she said was the truth. Throughout everything my family has been my biggest supporters, and I realized that I was competing as much for them as myself. The first time that my parents had seen me race internationally was last year, and I was thrilled that they could make it to Sydney. Of course I wasn’t quite as thrilled when they told me that they were going to make a real trip out of the expedition. After the Games when I was heading back to school and the Canadian winter, my parents went off to Tahiti and New Zealand.
The 2000 Paralympics were designated the best Games yet, and I totally agree. The event was so well organized that I cannot think of one thing that could have been done differently. The village was completely accessible and accommodating, and the volunteers were almost as friendly as Moose Javians. The Paralympic Committee implemented a new ticket policy that saw sales soar. In fact, tickets to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies were very hard to come by. Devoted fans attended the sporting events and packed the stadiums each day, rain or shine. In fact, I recall a story of one very devoted fan. A friend of mine went to watch the track events one day, and the only seat he could find was way up in the balcony. He had to use his binoculars to see the athletes down on the track. After a few minutes of this, he had an idea. Using his binoculars he scanned the crowd looking for an empty seat. Finally he found one and it was in the very first row! He couldn’t believe his luck. He rushed down to the seat and asked the man sitting next to it if anyone was using that seat. The man hesitated, and then said that the man could have the seat. He then continued to explain that it was his wife’s seat, but she had passed away recently. My friend was touched by his story, and then he asked the man why he hadn’t invited a friend to come along to use his wife’s ticket. The man simply replied "I would have invited someone, but all of my friends are presently at her funeral. I didn’t want to miss the 100 meter finals."
While I was in Australia, Palliser Heights School here in Moose Jaw held a special education week that focused on the Paralympics. One of the activities that they planned was to have students e-mail me while I was in Australia. I had three e-mail accounts, and one day I went into the computer room to find that I had over 200 email, in each of the accounts. It took me many hours to read through each letter, but it was worth the sore eyes. I discovered that Moose Jaw was really embracing the Paralympics, and it was great knowing that the Paralympics were finally getting the recognition that they deserve. I really enjoyed reading the e-mails. As you can imagine, sometimes the kids wrote would crack me up. I recall one boy who said that I was his hero and he wanted to be just like me (dot dot dot), but without the wheelchair. One other question that I am frequently asked is whether or not I have an agent. I always laugh whenever I am asked this because although I do not have an agent, my oldest brother likes to think he is my agent. He even generously offered to give me 10% of whatever "we" would earn.
The time that I spent in Sydney was unforgettable, but it didn’t prepare me for what I was in store for when I returned to Canada. When I returned to Moose Jaw, the city presented me with a key to the city, named a week after me, and they even threw a parade in my honor. I couldn't believe the reception that welcomed me home. Now, as much as I was overwhelmed with everything that was done, I am still waiting for the city to do one thing that would help me out a lot. They still haven't fixed the potholes along Saskatchewan Street where I train on a daily basis. But seriously, I am truly grateful for the way the city of Moose Jaw has embraced the Paralympic movement and myself.
The 2000 Paralympics made great strides for disabled sports, but there is still a long way to go. Would you believe that until last year, athletes that wanted to attend the Paralympics had to pay their own way? There is also the matter of the lack of media coverage. Most athletes that compete in the Paralympics have to work on top of training full-time, because there are no big endorsements and there is very little corporate support provided. With increased support I believe that the Paralympic movement will someday receive the recognition it so deserves.
I feel truly blessed to have been able to compete in the Paralympics, but I feel that the greatest satisfaction came with the journey. Thank you so much for welcoming me here and enjoy the rest of your evening.