A meeting with greatness

by Jen Bergevin

My daughter, Julie, is disabled. We don’t normally use that word because it implies that she is somehow less; broken in some way.

But, if you have ever met her, you know that she is most definitely not “less” and there is nothing broken about her. 

But if I am honest, with myself more than with anyone else, I have to say that my child is disabled.

To understand our struggles, you need to embrace that word and all the challenges, fear, and contempt that we are bombarded with because of it.

Every day, with the help of so very many others, we fight and protect her from the false preconceptions that so many have about people like Julie.

We have found that many things that others never even think about, are looming obstacles in our landscape and, recently, our Candu swimming lessons slammed head first into one of these obstacles.

Julie has always loved the water and has been in swimming lessons since infancy.
Three years ago, she began swimming with the Candus. At the time, we registered her as a para-swimmer.

A para-swimmer is a para-athlete who swims. Para-athletes are serious athletes who participate in competition with the goal of attending the Para-Olympics.

All para-athletes live with a disability. A para-athlete may be blind or missing limbs or, like my girl, have experienced a brain injury or may live with a myriad of other challenges. Para-athletes may or may not be Special Olympians.

My daughter had been doing well in the Candus; she was progressing slowly but continuously gaining skills, confidence and stamina; that is until recently.
Quite suddenly, she seemed to plateau and all her challenges seemed to be conspiring against her continued improvement.

So, Candu president Catherine Kerr contacted coach Vicki Keith of the Kingston YMCA’s Penguins for advice and guidance.

The Y Penguins is the largest para-swim club in Ontario and has produced dozens of international calibre athletes.

It is led by coach Keith. She is the most successful marathon swimmer who has ever lived and holds 14 world records in the sport. She has used her considerable skills to raise more than $800,000 to help disabled children and was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1992.

But, as awesome as her credentials are, they pale in the face of the actual person: Vicki Keith.

Keith invited us to bring Julie to Kingston to meet and to swim for her. So on February 21, Catherine Kerr, Julie, coach Emily Leclair and I piled into my car and drove to Kingston.

After a brief tour and chat, Emily and Julie were in the water with coach Keith observing.
Within minutes, Keith had noted a number of Julie’s strengths and weaknesses. She was able to identify what was occurring in Julie’s brain-body connection and what the miscommunication was.

Completely voluntarily and with no strings of any kind attached, coach Keith spent more than an hour with us in intense one-on-one coaching.

Never once did she say the word “if” – instead she always said “when.” Sentences that started like, “When Julie goes to the Para-Olympics…” flowed out of her mouth with absolute confidence. I was stunned and moved.

This community has been incredibly supportive and kind to my little girl. She is obviously well-known and well-loved, but I had never met a stranger before, like Vicki Keith, who instantly believed in Julie’s greatness.

I had always had to explain and felt that I needed to protect her and protect others from her.

I often find myself apologizing for Julie being just who she is and being fearful that the world will be too hard on her.

But, Keith was able to both acknowledge Julie’s challenges and her potential simultaneously.

In saying this, Julie has made incredible progress in the water since her meeting with coach Keith.

With coach Emily, Julie is focusing on just one stroke, the breast stroke. Coach Keith taught that because the movements in this stroke are in sync on both sides of the body, it makes it easier for her brain to process.

Furthermore, Keith wants Julie to focus on only one stroke at a time, as she will gain success more easily.

Coach Keith also invited us to send videos of Julie swimming and she will provide feed back long distance. As well, we are welcome to return if we encounter problems that long distance cannot solve.

Not only is Julie gaining competency in the stroke, but also she is having fun in the water again.

Moreover, meeting coach Vicki has had an incredibly impact on me. I learned more about loving and believing in my daughter in that hour, then I ever had before.

And that hour has changed me and how I parent forever.

For that, I want to thank the Candu swim club president Catherine Kerr and, most of all, Coach Vicki Keith.

candus great

(L-R; Back) Candu coach Emily Leclair, coach Vicki Keith, Jen Bergevin (Julie’s Mum)
(Front) Julie Dugal