This feature article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Jan. 3, 2004.
JUST ANOTHER ATHLETE
By Ed Odeven
Elisabeth Walker is one of the best athletes you’ve never heard of.
Take 1999, for instance, when she set four world records in a span of 10 days.
The encore? A year later, the Canadian swimmer captured three gold medals at a prestigious international competition in Sydney, Australia. All told, Walker set eight world records during the year.
Since then, Walker has continued to establish herself as one of Canada’s aquatic stars. At the Ontario University Athletic Championships in February 2002, Walker shattered four world records in the 50-meter butterfly, 100 butterfly, 100 freestyle and 200 individual medley in one weekend.
While watching Walker swim, you see the graceful, efficient techniques of a seasoned veteran.
It isn’t until she steps out of the pool that you realize, in a sense, that she’s different than other world-class athletes: Walker happens to make her mark competing for the Canadian Swimmers With A Disability (CSWAD) national team, of which she’s been a member since 1992.
Walker does not have the full use of her arms. Below the elbows, her forearms only measure about four inches long; and, as she has abnormally developed hands, she needs to grip most things with both of them clamped together.
Walker has a condition known as dysmelia, which according to the Web site http://www.books.md, is “a congenital abnormality characterized by missing or foreshortened limbs, sometimes with associated spine abnormalities; caused by metabolic disturbance at the time of primordial limb development.”
That hasn’t stopped Walker from competing in the S7 category, which includes swimmers with paraplegia, restricted arm and leg movement and partial amputations, as well as cerebral palsy and other disabilities, from doing what she has loved all her life: swimming.
But as she’s grown older, she shrugs off the notion that she’s truly different than other athletes.
Simply put, she says she wants to be recognized as an ordinary person.
“At times, it’s very frustrating,” Walker said after a recent afternoon training session at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center. “People tell me that I’m amazing. But I want them to know that I’m an athlete, an artist, and a master’s student, too.”
Nonetheless, she relishes the opportunity to be a role model for others with various disabilities.
“I find that fulfilling,” she said.
TRAINING IN FLAGSTAFF
Walker, 26, and the CSWAD team spent Dec. 25-30 training at NAU’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex.
The group, which consists of 15 swimmers ranging in age from 18 to 32, and a support staff of nine, is currently wrapping up its stay in Arizona with a six-day training stint at Phoenix Brophy Prep High School.
Generally, elite-level teams spend three weeks training in Flagstaff’s high altitude (7,000 feet) before returning to train at lower elevations. But highly regarded Canadian sports physiologist Dr. Stephen Norris, who works at the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary and accompanied the team to Arizona, has tailored the 12 days of training to maximize the impact it will have on the athletes.
Thus, the twice-a-day training sessions at NAU were anything but easy.
“It’s very tiring,” Walker said of training at high altitude. “But it’s worth it.”
Added teammate Walter Wu, a 31-year-old visually impaired swimmer from Richmond, British Columbia: “It’s basically eat, swim, sleep for the whole time we’re here.”
Well, mostly. After all, the team did attend the Coyotes-Kings game on New Year’s Eve at the brand-new Glendale Arena.
During the course of the year, CSWAD members train at their hometown clubs with other able-bodied swimmers. Walker, for example, resides in St. Catharines, Ontario, where she works out at Brock University pool for 10 training sessions each week. Occasionally, the swimmers will get together for national camps, which also provide them with a chance to develop team unity and camaraderie.
The next big meet the team will prepare for is an international competition in Denmark in early March.
Canadian coach Craig McCord, who has run a Vancouver swim club for 20 years, said Walker is one of the team leaders.
“Lis has been around for a while, and she comes into these camps with a very business-like attitude,” McCord said. “She knows what she wants to get done and she knows what the expectations of the coaching staff are.
“I think it’s just her level of professionalism. She’s very personable and well spoken. She’s the athlete rep, the person I interact with in regards to how the athletes interact with the coaching staff.”
Walker is a veteran of three Paralympics. As a 15-year-old, she went to the 1992 Summer Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Four years later, she participated in the Atlanta Games and earned a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke.
At the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, she continued her rise to stardom, by earning three gold medals (50 butterfly, 200 IM and a team gold in the 4×100 medley relay) and setting world records in all three events in the process. She also finished fifth in the 100 butterfly.
“To be more than a second below the world record (in the 50 butterfly) is unbelievable,” Walker told reporters in Sydney. “This was my pressure event and it’s a big relief to get it out of the way. The caliber of the athletes at these games has really shot up compared to four years ago.”
Walker’s stepped up her level of performance, too, and even exceeded her own lofty expectations.
“The last one was by far my most successful,” she said, reflecting on competing in Sydney. “I had a goal of one gold medal and one world record there, and I came home with three gold medals and (three) world records.”
Walker has a twin sister, Rebekah, who has customary use of both arms but has a slight learning disability. Growing up, the two were always together, practically inseparable.
Walker said she and her sister are best friends and learned to help each other as kids. Elisabeth took longer to learn everyday tasks like buttoning a coat and tying shoes, while Rebekah was a little behind in her scholastic endeavors.
“For each other, we are the perfect complement,” she said.
Nowadays, Rebekah juggles several jobs, working as a full-time nanny, at a bar and as an artist.
Rebekah also had the opportunity to share one of the most exciting times in her twin’s life four years ago, when she accompanied her sister to Sydney for the 2000 Paralympics. After the conclusion of the games, the two spent three months backpacking through the Australian countryside.
“What a wonderful experience that was to share with my sister,” Walker said, smiling.
LIVE AND LEARN
Dr. Norris, who regularly works with Canada’s able-bodied national-team athletes, such as the speed skaters, downhill skiers and hockey players, said he was initially nave about how to interact with disabled athletes. But, he said, “In 72 hours, that disappeared.”
Now, he’s as impressed with Walker’s athletic ability as anyone else.
“Of the six billion people on the planet that can swim, she’s in the 99th percentile. She’s a fine swimmer,” Dr. Norris concluded.
Coach McCord, meanwhile, said he’s learned that CSWAD swimmers don’t want special treatment.
“You’re going to obviously have to modify workouts and routines to fit their disability, but in general they get trained the exact same way the able-bodied athletes get trained,” he said.
Walker will compete at the Athens 2004 Paralympics, which will be Sept. 17-28. Not surprisingly, she’s thrilled about the opportunity to compete in the historic city.
“To be there in Greece, where the Olympics originate from, will be an amazing experience,” said Walker, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and recently took a leave of absence from school (she’s working toward a master’s in occupational therapy) to devote more time to prepare for the upcoming Paralympics.
Summing up the rewarding experiences she’s had as a Paralympian, Walker stated, “You get to see the best of both worlds: the great athleticism, and the chance to learn about what people with ‘disabilities’ can do.”