BSSC’s athletes with unique abilities program ensures everyone can realize joy of sport
At the Ignite Artistic Swimming, athletes of all ages and abilities are welcomed to share in the physical, mental and social well-being that sport promotes. That’s especially true for athletes who are part of the athletes with unique abilities (AUA) program.
The athletes in this program have cognitive and physical disabilities; the AUA program offers them the chance to overcome any challenges and succeed in sport. Ignite athletes have taken home numerous awards at past competitions. In early 2020, they brought home top 10 finishes – including a gold and silver medal – from the Ontario Winter Games.
Over the past three years, the program has grown to eight swimmers. AUA coach Grace Lockhart believes the key to the program’s success is individualized training. Coaches focus on adaptive learning to meet each of the athlete’s diverse needs. Low coaching ratios – every coach focuses on just one or two athletes at a time – ensure athletes get the attention and coaching techniques that they need.
“We like to focus on the abilities of our athletes and promote a positive message,” says Lockhart, who holds a Master’s of Critical Disability Studies and brings more than 15 years of experience in artistic swimming to the club. “We don’t see them as having disabilities, but rather unique abilities that are celebrated in our club.”
Lockhart says another key to success is that, beyond the pool, the AUA swimmers are part of the Ignite family, involved in many of the club’s social activities – whether virtually or, before the pandemic, in person.
For athlete Mel, being part of artistic swimming has brought many benefits. “I have been swimming with Ignite for 10 years and love it so much,” she says. “I am more confident and healthy. I have made so many friends here. Ignite is like my second family.”
The passion of the swimmers has also been on full display during the pandemic, as programming changes have ensured the athletes can continue to benefit from training, including virtual training sessions and strict physical distancing protocols at the pool, when public health measures determine in-person practice sessions can be held safely.
“This season is very different for everyone and our programming has also had to adapt to the changes,” Lockhart explains. “We plan on continuing our programming like normal, and just keep adapting to any changes we encounter due to Covid.”
Despite the challenges the club has faced during the pandemic, continuing to participate in sport is important for the wellness of all athletes, including those in the AUA program. Bill, a parent of three girls who swim at Ignite, credits artistic swimming with improving everyone’s swimming skills. For the two children who swim in the AUA program, the skills go way beyond the water.
“The confidence that my oldest two children who swim in the athletes with unique abilities category have developed has been incredible,” he says. “It brings tears to my eyes to see the joy on their faces when they get to perform their routines at competitions. The pinnacle, though, was seeing them enjoy the Ontario Winter Games experience in 2020. They were so thrilled to be at such a big event.”
Lockhart says the expansion of AUA programs across Ontario will help more athletes realize the excitement of being involved in sport. “It is amazing to see how much the other clubs are expanding their AUA programs,” she says. “We are a small community, so all of the Ontario athletes get to know each other really well at competitions and we have made so many friends from other clubs. I look forward to continuing the development of our AUA program and am excited to see other clubs grow too.”