During my mother’s pregnancy, her sonogram showed that her baby was healthy.
The sonogram showed that her baby had two arms, two legs, 10 toes and 10 fingers. The sonogram was wrong.
I was born missing my right leg and right hip, and some of my organs were sitting outside the abdomen. Panic engulfed the delivery room apart from two people. One of them was a nurse, who insisted this newborn be held by her mother before being rushed in a helicopter to Sick Kids hospital. The other was the baby who had no idea that missing a limb was anything to be fussed over. Isn’t everyone born this way? It sure felt normal to her.
With so many thoughts and fears filling my parents’ heads, the sentiment that stood out above everything else was, “She is beautiful. Her body is perfect.” And to make sure I knew it, they vowed to put me in as many sports as possible. They were determined that I would feel empowered by my body, not inhibited by it.
At 11 months old, I was fitted for a prosthetic leg. It helped me to walk, but it was very uncomfortable and it always felt like something was weighing me down. At two years old, I was put into a swimming pool and something magical happened. Feeling more like a mermaid than a person, I was free - physically, from my prosthetic leg and emotionally, from any kind of imposed limitations or judgments.
The water doesn’t judge you, feel sorry for you, or give you an easier time because you have a disability — things I experienced every single day. I was free to be me.
In the water, I gained confidence and self-esteem around my unconventional body. I was very athletic and loved to challenge myself. I learned to walk on my hands, ride a bicycle with one leg and no hands, do a back handspring. I even won the high jump competition for my entire region in grade 7 and 8. But despite all of my athletic achievements, people were still calling me “inspiring” for doing normal everyday tasks, having no idea how demeaning it felt.
I was once told, “Stephanie, you’re so amazing! If I was you, I don’t know if I could leave the house.” It’s almost impossible to ignore these unintentionally hurtful comments.
I began to swim competitively and very quickly started to qualify for regional and provincial competitions. In my first year of swimming, I learned about para sport and that I could be put into a classification of swimmers who had a similar disability to mine.
At 13 years old, the last thing I wanted to do was stand out or be different. I hated the thought of having the word “disabled” labelled across my forehead during competitions or having different expectations and standards than everyone else. I didn’t want to participate, I wanted to compete. But my parents and coach encouraged me to at least try para-sport and I reluctantly agreed.
At the first competition I competed at in my new classification, S9, I met other swimmers with disabilities for the first time. To my surprise, everyone I met was similar to me. They didn’t want a label, people feeling sorry for them, or have different expectations or standards either. I learned that contrary to public perception, all that “para” meant was a level playing field to pursue athletic achievement, much like having different categories for men and women.
In 2000, at 16 years old, I travelled to Sydney, Australia to compete in my first Paralympic Games. There, I found a global community of people who had the athleticism, heart, desire, and relentless determination that you would expect from any athlete on the world stage, they just also happened to have a disability. The stands were packed with 17,000 cheering people each night. Fans were stopping us every two feet for autographs.
I laid everything I had on the line with no guarantee of success and I stood on top of a podium with the Canadian Flag raised behind me while hearing our National Anthem. Tears ran down my face; I have never felt so proud.
I came home with five gold medals, two silver medals and five world records. I was living a dream until I went back to school and my classmates had no idea what the Paralympic Games were. My bubble burst. I got comments such as, “Aren’t the Paralympic Games for Paraplegics? You aren’t in a Wheelchair!”
Instead of holding my head up high, I went into a shell and hid behind my prosthetic leg. Suddenly the feelings of freedom and empowerment I felt in the water turned into embarrassment and shame. I became mortified at the thought of everyone seeing my mis-shaped body so I refused to go to school without my prosthetic leg and didn’t talk about my Paralympic Success.
It can be very difficult to imagine yourself as a champion or a role model when many of your interactions with people have an unintentional, but still demeaning undertone. I was training 10 times a week in the pool and up to 7.5 km per workout, the same as my teammates training for the Olympics. Even still, l often heard from non-swimmers, “I bet you could even swim faster than me!”, a comment intended as a compliment. I would always just smile back, but in my head I would be thinking “Are you f’ing kidding me?”
As a result of these kinds of comments, I have been fighting off feelings of inadequacy my entire life.
As I went off to University I realized my life was being controlled by fear. My prosthetic leg was no longer a tool that allowed me to be mobile and in fact, I was more agile and comfortable on crutches. My prosthetic leg was a mask that I was hiding behind in an attempt to look normal. I decided to take control of my life back.
I went to half of my classes with my prosthetic leg and half of them on crutches. I wanted to be proud of myself whether I had one leg or two. I was the only swimmer with a disability on the varsity swim team and I was determined to keep up. I wanted to change the way people viewed disability. I wanted the word “disability” to become a descriptor and not a judgment of ability or character.
During my first year on the University of Victoria varsity swim team at the Canadian University (CIS) Championships, I swam to 15th place against swimmers with two legs. I also went on to swim in my second Paralympic Games in Athens, winning eight medals including one gold and setting a new world record. Following that season, I was named the University of Victoria’s Female Athlete of the Year. It was my first time winning an award that didn’t have “with a disability” attached to it. I was finally able to hold my head up high because the University of Victoria recognized that success comes in all different shapes and sizes.
We have come so far in recognizing Paralympic sport and we need to keep pushing the Paralympic movement forward. No one should ever feel ashamed of their body or feel they can’t celebrate their success. Paralympic sport is about so much more than athleticism. Of course it is an elite sporting event first, but it also creates a platform to normalize disability and celebrate difference. We can all feel empowered when we focus on what our bodies can do instead of what they look like.
(Stephanie Dixon is covering the Rio Paralympics for CBC Sports. Large photos courtesy The Associated Press)