From very early on in Paralympian Sarah Mehain’s swimming career, her coach told her, “You just need to believe in yourself”. While Sarah lives with cerebral palsy, it is this belief – and her actions as a result of that conviction – which empowered her to become the swimmer she is today.
Involvement in sports is extremely beneficial for people living with cerebral palsy as it increases participation, encourages people with cerebral palsy as well as other physical disabilities and long-term conditions to live more active and fulfilling lives, and reduces the barriers and isolation faced by so many people living with cerebral palsy.
Sarah says proudly,
“Being an athlete with a disability, I am constantly making adjustments to how I train and I am always learning new ways to do things, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Who wants to do things the way everyone else does?”
Despite the cerebral palsy that affects her balance in the water and the coordination of her strokes, and being unable to handle too many technical changes all at once, nothing phases her. Sarah trains with the McGill Varsity swim team and her progress has been facilitated by the Canadian Paralympic Program which gives her the resources she needs to adjust her training program to her abilities, such as a separate dryland schedule or a specific training camp.
Proud to be a part of the Paralympic movement
The swimmer felt like it took time for her to grasp the concept of competing against other disabled athletes because it meant that she had to firmly believe that she had what it took to compete against some of the best swimmers in the world. She also came to realize that the Para sport is just as competitive and athletic as any able-bodied sport. “I had to learn to truly believe in what I was doing,” Sarah says. “Now, when I stand up behind the blocks to represent Canada and people with disabilities, I am so proud to be a part of the Paralympic movement.”
That’s exactly what she has done, proudly representing Canada at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, the Para World Championships in Eindhoven 2010, Montreal in 2013, and Glasgow in 2015 and most recently, the 2015 Para Pan Am Games in Toronto. Sarah believes that representing Canada on an international level “brings the level of excitement up a notch”, especially in light of the passion, excitement and support she witnessed the Canadians bring to the pool. But it was in the summer of 2015 that she saw the potential of Paralympic sports to become a movement which demonstrates how people with disabilities are no different than able-bodied people in sport and in other aspects of life.
The 21-year-old remarked that the Para athletes are just as competitive, professional, and capable as any other athlete, and that her mindset changed when she went to her first Paralympic swim meet and saw that all the athletes had disabilities. It changed her life. “I saw this world where physical disability had no impact on what people thought of you, where your accomplishments were celebrated not because you had somehow managed to finish a race but because you had achieved a good time in the pool.”
Believe in yourself
The Okanagan resident received coaching from Renate Terpstra, a coach with the Okanagan Para Swimming Program. Terpstra has seen major developments in the swimmer, as the sport has enabled her to set goals and develop self-discipline while building self-confidence. “The heart of our program (Okanagan Para Swimming) is learning how to maintain a positive attitude while nourishing a focus on ability,” shared Tersptra. “To believe in yourself. It is amazing to see what each athlete can accomplish.” The swim coach, who is working with four athletes living with a disability, feels it is important to instil a can-do attitude in the swimmers and help them recognize that their disability does not define them.
Sarah is the embodiment of this philosophy, and it is clear in how she has won a gold in the 50 metre butterfly event at the 2015 Toronto Para Pan Am Games, as well as numerous gold Para Can Am medals, a silver medal at the short course World Championships in Rio de Janeiro in 2010, and a bronze medal in the 100 metre backstroke at the 2013 long course World Championships in Montreal.
At that time, Terpstra acknowledged that her pupil really started to excel. “Winning a gold medal in the 50-metre butterfly,” gushed Terpstra. “So impressive. That smile after she finished will stay in my mind forever! Sarah starts to realize now what she is capable of.”
The Paralympian really enjoys swimming and is grateful that being part of Para sports creates opportunities for unique experiences and meeting incredible people within the Paralympic community. She also feels strongly about challenging the notion of how people perceive the Para sport. “If you take yourself seriously, other people will take you seriously,” asserted the native of Nelson, BC.
Success in and out of the pool
In addition to success in the pool, Mehain’s success also translates into the classroom as she currently studies Sustainability Science and Society at McGill University. Her program is an interfaculty program that analyzes all aspects of sustainability from the scientific factors to the political and economic factors, to how to combine these fields moving forward.
But for now, she is celebrating her spot on the 2016 Canadian Paralympic swim team and a chance to win gold for Canada in the Women’s 50 metre Butterfly. Go Sarah!