How I Became Involved in Amputee Swimming
A few years after becoming an amputee I became involved in amputee swimming. I happened upon a newspaper article in the local paper about an amputee swimmer named Jackie Mitchell, who had just earned a bronze medallion in the 1976 Olympiad for the Disabled, held in Toronto, Canada. The 1976 Olympiad for the Physically Disabled was the first Olympiad with full competition for blind, paralyzed, and amputee athletes. It also marked the first time sports for the disabled was recognized as a true sporting event in its own right, and not just a rehabilitation measure for people with disabilities.Reading this article about Jackie Mitchell made me realize that this was something I should become involved in. I had always loved the water, and often I would be the last one out of the lake, returning to our family campsite with blue lips from being in the water for so long. So I got out the phone book, called Jackie Mitchell and spoke to her about competitive swimming for amputees. We arranged a meeting at the Niagara Falls YMCA, where Jackie trained with her coach, Mac Bowman.
I began training with Jackie and Mr. Bowman 4 or five nights a week. I loved it! I learned how to swim more efficiently under Mac’s guidance, and gained some racing experience against other teams in our league, mostly children and teenagers. I was the oldest at 21 years of age.
Racing against the able bodied seemed only natural to me. It was good training and certainly a challenge. I could feel more acceptance of myself as a swimmer and an athlete. I also found that being fit was very beneficial to walking on an above knee prosthesis. It wasn’t always easy, but the efforts paid benefits for many years to come. I developed more solid discipline and was able to focus on improving my personal best times in preparation for my first disability games competition in Brantford, Ontario.
My First Competition Against Other Amputee Swimmers – 1977 Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled – Brantford, Ontario.
By the summer of 1977, I had been training for about 6 months, had a few races under my belt, and I felt I was ready for my first major competition. Swimming is basically an individual sport, and I had developed a little bit of confidence and knew that I was swimming well.
Sports for the Disabled was relatively new around this time, especially integrated ones. Attending my first event of this size was a real eye opener for me. This was my exposure to all sorts of disabilities and conditions. These people were all normal just like me. They just had little defects and huge hearts. There were blind athletes, athletes with cerebral palsy, paraplegic competitions and wheelchair basketball. I thought it was all really cool and a lot of fun.
As I am relying completely on memories from 35 years ago, I won’t bore you with all the details. I’m just trying to give you the overall effect of my participation in these games, and how it contributed to my self image and perception of myself as a “person with a disability”.
The overall effect of watching all these events unfold made me feel a lot of respect for the daily challenges of all these people. Yet here they were competing against each other, and having a good time with each other in the evening, and carrying on through life by facing these challenges up front and not letting their so called disability prevent them from enjoying as complete a life as possible. When you think about it, what else is there to do? It’s either sink or swim, pardon the pun.
For me, the reality of coming close to death gave me a much greater appreciation for life, and I heard similar comments from so many of these athletes. It’s not just a corny statement. It’s a fact of life for myself and a lot of others.
I was classified for my events according to my level of disability. Being an above knee amputee, I was placed in a classification where I would be competing against other single above knee amputees. There were swimmers from all across Ontario, and it seemed there was some good competition. Some classifications would end up having only one or two competitors at this time, so I was fortunate to have a good field to race against.
With my family in attendance, I won four out of the five races I was in. I recall just doing what Mac had taught me to do, and I was really up for the races and ready to go. Perhaps I had finally found something I was good at.
I wish I could relate more to you about this or provide some stats, but after moving last year, I can’t locate my scrap book yet. When I do, I will find a lot more details and publish them on this site. But for now, it seemed like I had found a new path in life.
My First National Competition – 1977 Canadian Games for the Physically Disabled – Edmonton, Alberta
We traveled that year , where we were in competition with disabled athletes from across Canada. We stayed and competed at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
I had come to know so many disabled athletes by now, and I was constantly inspired by all of them. I began to feel in some ways as if I didn’t have it so bad, especially in comparison to some of the others. Everybody seemed to perceive of their conditions in a matter of fact kind of way, as if it were just a little inconvenience.
Although we were now competing at a national level, my main competition remained exactly the same: my roommate and fellow Ontario Team member, whose name I can’t recall. He’s the guy on the photo pages with the Ontario shirt and thick glasses. He had a little more experience than I did, having taken part in the Olympiad for the Disabled in Toronto in 1976. He was the reason I won the silver medal in backstroke at the provincials. However, at the nationals I finally managed to beat him out in my quest for gold.
My first national competition was a great success, with a lot of gold hardware being collected for the trip home. I felt like a champion. The entire experience was one that I never thought would have happened to me. In retrospect, becoming an amputee opened a few doors of opportunity for me. It’s important to remember that I had a good attitude about my disability from the beginning. Had I been sitting around moping, perhaps this great opportunity to excel at something would have passed me by completely?
1978-1980 – Various Provincial, National and International Competitions
Rather than make a futile attempt to recall all the events and competitions I took part in, in this section I will summarize whatever I can recall from these years. As I am writing completely from memory of events that took place over 25 years ago, obviously I am not able to completely remember everything, so I will not bore you with too much detail here. Instead, I will focus on the highlights and the things I can remember.
The 1978 Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled were held in Windsor, Ontario. This was another very successful meet for me, taking home some hardware as well as the Best Male Amputee Athlete Award.
Also in the summer of 1978, we were fortunate enough to travel to St. John’s, Newfoundland for two weeks of competition. I don’t know why I remember this one so well. Perhaps it’s because we had such a good time competing and enjoying the East Coast hospitality. Also, my mother and her boyfriend, and my brother Mike drove all the way from Niagara Falls, Ontario to Newfoundland to watch me race!
Flying to Newfoundland is something I can never forget. We left Toronto and had to make a stop in New Brunswick to pick up some more athletes. Somewhere over the ocean on our way to the rock, we hit some pretty severe turbulence, and the plane suddenly dropped about 500 feet. At the precise moment, I got hit with a sinus pain behind my eyes from the drop in cabin pressure, and it stayed with me for the next 48 hours. After I recovered from this, I was ready to race.
We stayed and competed at Memorial University, a lovely campus in a beautiful city full of charm. Thanks to the internet, I have been able to “revisit” some of these places, although I have been unsuccessful in finding pictures of aquatic centers or any references to these events.
The races went well, and I took home a few medals. It was especially nice having my family with me at this event. When my competition was over, we treated ourselves to some hospitality Newfie style. We visited a few pubs and I got up and sang at one of them. My brother met a woman, who invited us over for a dinner called Fish and Brews or something. We also had to make sure we had a fair sampling of Schooner Beer and Newfie Screech!
In the summer of 1979, I traveled with the Canadian Amputee Team to Skoke-Mandeville in Aylesbury, England to compete in the World Amputee Games. Stoke-Mandeville is the site of the original Paralympic games in 1952.
We stayed at the hospital, enjoying our daily tv dinners. To say the least, the food at this competition left a little to be desired. There used to be a perception that disabled athletes weren’t athletes. But our training and enthusiasm and desire were exactly the same. Which meant we needed good food! I remember taking a cab into town just to get some fish and chips, and another time for Kentucky Fried chicken. Not exactly healthy choices but it sure beat Salisbury Steak again.
The greasy food must have helped. I won my first international medal in the 100M Breaststroke final, in a 25 metre pool with no starting blocks. The competition was very fierce and I was proud to have represented my team so well. This was perhaps my best performance ever in competition, as far as medals go. I also won a silver medal that year for 100M Butterfly.
Olympiad for the Disabled in Arnhem, Netherlands.
The next year, 1980 presented my loftiest goal so far, the one I had been working toward all along. Holland was the host of the 1980 Olympiad for the Disabled, and they did it in style. We entire Canadian contingent trained for two weeks at a hostel of some kind near Arnhem. All the disability groups shared the space, and it was a real team feeling being all together in a different country. It gave us the chance to mingle and not just hang with the amputees, if you know what I’m saying. We even ate at long tables together, family style with bowls and trays of good food being passed around.
Having hardly ever raced in a 50 metre pool, I was always a little wary of them. I guess I was used to a 25 metre pool with three turns for a 100M race. Standing at the starting block one day, I remember staring down the length of the lane and thinking that
We were housed in actual military barracks bunk bed style. This place was cool. The food was excellent, especially the breakfasts. Plenty of new things to try and different cheeses, etc. Not your typical Canadian breakfast, but very good.
There were thirty two countries competing here, and I believe this was one of the biggest disabled sporting events of its time. The competition was foremost on our minds and the competition was serious. I had been carb loading after a three week hiatus from carbs, and I was in peak form physically. Mentally, I wasn’t so sure.
I raced the best I could in the 200M IM event, and I was leading the pack for three quarters of the way. In the final 50M freestyle, I started to fade and panicked a little. I saw the other swimmers passing me and I lost my technique a bit, ending up in a fourth place finished. Disappointing? You bet.
I wasn’t finished yet. however. Due to changes in the racing rules for amputees that year, above knee amputees were now racing against below knee amputees in the same classification. Suffice it to say, most of the AK’s didn’t make the finals, including me. The same rule applied for the 100M backstroke. That left the 100M breaststroke and the 100M butterfly as my best chances for a medal placing.
I remember seeing this Spanish guy around at training time named Carlos, I think. He was my main competition and I recall him telling me breaststroke was not his thing. Well, he got one over on me, cause he smoked me in the final. He was fast. I don’t recall our times, but he was moving! I finished in second and was feeling a lot better by that time.
Butterfly came next and I made the finals. This was the first time we actually had finals. Most of my events hadn’t included qualifying rounds at this point in the games history. The butterfly event was not my favorite, but I made a pretty good effort in the last few metres to gain a third place, bronze medal finish. I was pretty happy with my results overall.
The Holland experience was the end of it for me. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I was truly exhausted by the time I got home. We did a little nightclubbing in the bars of Arnhem on a few occasions at the end of our stay, and we were still a little out of it at the airport the next morning. We made a few friends though and had a good time.
Becoming involved in disabled swimming has enabled me to function better as an amputee and as a person, having found in myself and my fellow competitors a deep desire to carry on despite whatever life throws at us. And a much deeper appreciation of simply still being alive.