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Tammy Cunnington at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para swimming championships held in Cairns, Australia.

BRIAN CASSEY/Brian Cassey/Swimming Canada

Tammy Cunnington was 6 when she was struck by a plane while attending an air show in Ponoka, Alta. She was there with members of her figure skating club to raise funds with a pancake breakfast. As her parents cooked flapjacks, two planes collided and, in the crash that resulted, Tammy was hit by a propeller.

“That’s where I say my life began,” says Cunnington, who is now a 45-year-old Paralympic swimmer. “For most everybody else, that’s where they say their life ends.”

In the two weeks after the freak accident, she had 17 operations, including some that lasted more than 12 hours. She didn’t go home from the hospital for a year, and when she did it was in a wheelchair. She is a paraplegic, and by the time she reached sixth grade had undergone surgery 27 times.

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“From the beginning, I never remember having the worry that I would never walk again,” Cunnington says. “My parents didn’t treat me like I couldn’t do things. I had chores just like my siblings. My motivation came from wanting people to see me for something more than my wheelchair.”

Cunnington is now a Paralympian, one of a number of world-class athletes who were born with atypical bodies, who have dealt with health issues such as cancer, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and strokes. Some athletes are blind or visually impaired. Many survived catastrophic events through which they were robbed of the use of their arms, legs or both. A couple were shot.

The 128 members of Canada’s paralympic delegation in Tokyo, including Cunnington, have endured circumstances and suffering most of us cannot imagine. They have reached the pinnacle of sport with courage, determination and grit. Bodies can be damaged but not so human spirit.

Cunnington retains the use of her right arm, shoulders and core. She competed in four events at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro by propelling herself through the water with one arm. Next week she travels to Japan for the Games, which begin Aug. 24.

After her injury, she was introduced to para sports at a two-week camp. She began to play wheelchair basketball and then participated in triathlon and hand cycling. She also learned to alpine ski and took up paddle boarding.

“I came from a sporting and competitive family and that is part of who I am,” she says. “My drive comes from my competitive nature. I only saw two choices: to continue to have a quality life or to stay in bed. I want people to see my character, not my characteristics.”

‘They push the envelope and care about their performance’

Canada’s team at the Paralympic Games has members from 11 provinces and territories and features 71 women and 57 men. Among them are 26 previous medalists and 68 who are returning from 2016. The youngest team member is 17-year-old swimmer Nicholas Bennett from Parksville, B.C., while the oldest is wheelchair fencer Sylvie Morel of Pincourt, Que. She turns turns 65 on Sept. 2.

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Archer Karen Van Nest of Wiarton, Ont., and wheelchair rugby player Patrice Simard of Quebec City will each be engaged in their sixth Paralympic Games. Fifty-five men and woman are participating in their first. The event started in 1948 as a small gathering for British Second World War veterans and has evolved into a sporting spectacle that this year will include 4,400 athletes with disabilities, from 160 nations.

“They are all incredible stories,” says Stephanie Dixon, who as chef de mission of Canada’s team serves as its spokesperson and leader behind the scenes. “All in all, they push the envelope and care about their performance. Each is an individual, but common themes are resilience and grit. It is harder to find a group with more strength and depth.”

Dixon was born without her right leg and hip but went on to win 19 medals as a swimmer at Paralympics in Sydney, Athens and Beijing before she retired in 2010. She is from Toronto originally, but since 2011 has lived in Whitehorse.

She grew healthy through sports, both physically and mentally.

“As kids you don’t know what the word ‘disability’ means and you have no reference point,” says Dixon, 37. “By the time I realized people looked at me differently – as not quite as capable – I was affected very deeply. At the time I worked very hard to prove myself, which is not necessarily a good way. It has been a long journey for me to love and learn my body.”

Growing up, she wore a prosthetic leg. Eventually, she threw it away.

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The 128 members of Canada’s paralympic delegation in Tokyo, including Cunnington, have endured circumstances and suffering most of us cannot imagine.

BRIAN CASSEY/Brian Cassey/Swimming Canada

Now she is headed for Japan as the face of Canada’s Paralympic team.

“It is one of the greatest honours a Paralympian can ever have,” Dixon says. “It is an honour to be a cheerleader and spokesperson for Team Canada. I burst with pride.”

‘Everyone has something inside them that helps to keep them going’

The contingent Canada is sending to Tokyo includes one para equestrian who was paralyzed from the waist down when she was crushed beneath a 75-kilogram bale of hay. There is a cyclist who was jettisoned through the windshield of a bus during a trip to Mexico. One canoeist was struck by a cab in Toronto, and another injured while skydiving. Also, a volleyball player who lost one leg in a lawn-mowing accident and a distance runner who sustained a brain injury when struck in the back of the head by a golf ball.

“Everyone has something inside them that helps to keep them going and accept their fate and not just roll over and die,” Trevor Hirschfield says.

Hirschfield, 37, is co-captain of Canada’s wheelchair rugby team, which enters the Tokyo Paralympics ranked fifth in the world. As a 16-year-old, he was rendered a quadriplegic in a car accident but now is considered among the best low-point players in the world.

Married with two children, he lives in Parksville, B.C. On the day he was paralyzed, he pulled over to the side of a logging road to let another vehicle pass. The shoulder collapsed beneath him, and as his car careened downward and rolled over, its roof stuck a tree. The force pushed the roof down into his head and caused damage to his spinal cord.

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“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Hirschfield says.

Before the accident, he played mostly baseball, football and hockey. After it, he was introduced to wheelchair rugby by Duncan Campbell, one of the sport’s creators. Campbell was Hirshfield’s recreational therapist at the time.

“I didn’t take to it right away,” Hirschfield says. “Then Duncan called me and said, ‘You don’t have a choice anymore. You have to try it.’ I did, and I fell in love.”

Hirschfield won a bronze medal at the Paralympics in 2008 with Team Canada in Beijing and a silver in 2012 in London. He has hopes for another this year, but if it doesn’t happen he still will feel blessed.

“For me, wheelchair rugby was a means to regain my independence,” he says. “I was 16, and it was taken from me in the blink of an eye. I needed sports to get it back again. I am forever thankful.”

‘People are talking about inclusion so it is a good time to deliver a message’

Tammy Cunnington has set Canadian para swimming records in the 50-metre and 100-metre freestyle and 50-metre butterfly. But she caught pneumonia at the 2016 Paralympics and missed out on a medal.

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“It was the sickest I have been in many years,” she says. “I wasn’t swimming as fast as I would have liked, and was disappointed in all of my performances. I didn’t have the lung capacity I needed.”

She contemplated retirement but decided against it and then, like many other athletes, struggled to train for these Games during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She started by working out on a hand cycle and lifting free weights in her basement in Alberta, and then used a gym at the home of a friend.

“At the beginning, I thought, ‘It will be hard, but this will probably only last for a few weeks,’” Cunnington says. “None of us had any idea what was going to happen.”

Eventually the Paralympics, originally scheduled for 2020, were postponed.

“I took a bit of time to grieve but on the other hand I realized that I had more time to get ready if it was rescheduled,” she says.

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As some of the COVID restrictions were dropped, she began to train with an exercise physiologist in Calgary, and did tougher workouts in her basement. She subscribed to Peleton and one day dropped into a virtual training session with 49,999 other people.

There were no in-person time trials held for swimmers because of the infectious disease, and she ended up qualifying only at the last minute via video.

“I had to put my best foot forward and it was highly stressful,” Cunnington says. “I didn’t think I had done enough to make the team so I was excited when I got the e-mail. It was wonderful because I achieved my goal with a little fear mixed in.”

She says she is calmer, older and more prepared than she was in 2016 but is less worried about winning a medal.

“I wanted to make the team, but this time it is more for myself,” she says. “It’s less about the times I swim, and more for the greater good.”

She has become a public speaker over the past few years and says she will devote more time to that and trying to educate people about individuals with disabilities.

“We are at a time where people are talking about inclusion so it is a good time to deliver a message,” Cunnington says. “One is to encourage people who are physically different and let them know that life may be harder but it doesn’t have to be less. The other is for able-bodied people to also find their passion, but see others for their strength.”

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