Blind swimmer takes home gold

Urban Inuk born a water baby



Nervous anticipation filled Jenna Kayakjuak as she stood by the pool’s edge at the Canada Summer Games in Regina.

As she remembers it, she just wanted the race, a 100-metre butterfly event, over and done with. Before diving into the water, she pulled her swimming goggles, painted black, over her eyes.

Kayakjuak, now 18, was born blind. She left the Regina games carrying two medals: a gold from that butterfly race, and a bronze from a 100-metre freestyle event. Despite placing well at other competitions leading up to the summer games, she said she didn’t go in with any big expectations.

“I didn’t expect to get any medals. It was a huge surprise.”

Less surprised was her mother, Rhoda, who watched Jenna first take to the water when she was a small child. “She’s like a fish,” she said. Since getting the good news, Rhoda’s received a torrent of emails from friends and relatives in Nunavut.

Swimming without sight presents some challenges. When Kayakjuak dives into the pool, two assistants stand at either end of the lane, each holding a foam-padded stick, “like a giant Q-tip,” to tap her on the head as she approaches the wall.

That signal lets her know when to stretch out, touch the wall and spin around in a kick-flip.

Without sight, Kayakjuak still has an idea of where her competitors are, based on thumps and splashes she hears in the other lanes. “When they’re close to me, I can tell,” she said.

But as she explains, position isn’t too important when competing with other disabled athletes. During the summer games she swam against other blind athletes, amputees and Special Olympics athletes with mental disabilities. Their ranking was determined after the race, using a point system that factors in each competitor’s disability.

Rhoda grew up in Hall Beach and lived in Iqaluit when her daughter was born. Ten days later she flew south to Montreal, where better medical care awaited Jenna. They moved to Ottawa shortly afterward, where Rhoda works as an Inuktitut translator and consultant.

A seven-hour drive separates Rhoda from her daughter, who studies at a school for the blind in Brantford, Ont., but that hasn’t stopped her from waking up many bleary early mornings to help get her daughter to swim practice. The two remain tight, but when Jenna’s home she still needs to be dragged out of the pool.

“Even when she’s home, she wants to be in the water.”

When younger, Jenna won awards for math and playing the trumpet, but swimming has been her focus ever since she started competing a few years ago. She practices eight times a week. This fall she’ll enter Grade 12 in school and has thoughts about going to university.

But right now she’s more interested in the swimming world championships, coming up in 18 months.

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