If anyone knows about the positive role sport can play, it’s U of T Scarborough alum and former Paralympian Kaley McLean.
McLean, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at the age of two, competed for Canada in three swimming events at the 2004 Paralympics games in Athens. She says staying physically active and competing in the Paralympic games were instrumental in shaping her identity.
"It allowed me to grow in confidence and believe in myself. It also helped me stay mentally strong and physically capable," she says.
McLean says her experience at the Paralympic games was “exhilarating” and although she didn’t win a medal, she experienced a thrill when the national anthem was played for her teammates. In the following summer McLean won gold and a silver medal in the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CP-ISRA) World Championships held in Connecticut.
She says an important aspect of the Paralympic games is the visibility it gives athletes with disabilities. That also plays an important role in challenging stereotypes about disability and shifting narratives towards a more accurate one that emphasizes different skills and abilities.
The Paralympics were launched in 1948 as the Stoke-Mandeville Games. Held shortly after the end of the Olympic games, it brings together thousands of world-class athletes from around the globe to compete in events including swimming, cycling, wheelchair basketball and rugby, among others. Canada is sending 128 athletes to this year’s games in Tokyo, Japan, which began on Aug. 24.
McLean started her swim training in the pool at Variety Village in 1995 and supplemented her swimming with dry-land training in the Athletics and Fitness Centre at UTSC starting in 2002. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in 2007 from UTSC and continues to be active. In addition to downhill skiing, she still swims for fun (not competitively) and also holds a black belt in Tae Kwan Do.
She initially enrolled at UTSC because it was an accessible and wheelchair-friendly campus, and says that the campus provided her with the support she needed to succeed in her educational and athletics goals. When she first enrolled, McLean went to see Tina Doyle, the Director of AccessAbility Services to get information about the university's athletic facilities.
Doyle acknowledges the importance of sports in students' physical and mental health, and that the Department of Athletics and Recreation has many resources to help students of different abilities and athletic skills achieve their goals.
“It is important for our students with disabilities to see that having a disability does not have to limit them,” says Doyle.
She adds that the determination, hard work, and athleticism shown by McLean in becoming a Paralympian is something all students can be motivated by, but more importantly, it helps break down stereotypes about people with disabilities.
McLean says AccessAbility Services were also very supportive during her time as an undergrad. "They made it happen. I was put in touch with (personal trainer) Laurie Wright, and she guided me to use the equipment available in the weight room," she says.
Wright, a fitness specialist at UTSC, said at the time McLean was able to do her dry land training on campus, but now with the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (TPASC), students can also train in the pools on campus. TPASC also houses the training centre for Canada’s wheelchair basketball team, which will compete in the upcoming Paralympic games.
“Now the University co-owns a track and a pool that students with all abilities can use quite easily. Both areas can be accessible for students using mobility devices as they are equipped with accessible change rooms, doors and lifts to assist. It’s an amazing change,” says Wright.
Looking back at her time as an undergrad, McLean says that being involved in athletics and the support she received from AccessAbility Services helped her become the person she is today.
"AccessAbility Services is an excellent resource. They helped me with my studies and my athletic endeavours from the beginning."
Her advice to students? Find your passion, make use of all resources available on campus, especially those that can help you succeed.
"Find what you love to do. It could be sports, arts or writing, whatever it is, if you love it you will live it,” she says.
“Just ask what's available. Don't limit yourself. And try to take advantage of resources as much as you can. They will help you succeed."