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Athletic Inspiration Heads for Paralympic Games

McLean builds her cardiovascular fitness using a rowing machine at UTSC

Kaley McLean, a social sciences student at UTSC, turns 21 on September 20. But unlike many of her peers, she will be celebrating in Athens, Greece – competing, on her birthday, in the first heat of the 50-metre backstroke at the 2004 Paralympic Games. It is one of two events (50m backstroke and 50m butterfly) in which she holds Canadian records.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Greece and swimming well," she says. “I tried to make the team four years ago and just missed the standard. I’m going to take it one day at a time and just enjoy it."

At age two McLean was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, a disorder caused by brain damage before or during birth. The damage often results in muscular impairment, and sometimes speech, coordination and learning difficulties. When McLean was diagnosed doctors told her parents she would never walk.

"My mom and dad just said, ‘no, that’s not going to be her’. They told my parents a lot of things that I’ve proven wrong."

One of the many activities McLean’s parents encouraged her to pursue was swimming. She has trained in the pool at Variety Village since 1995, and since 2002 has supplemented her swimming with dry-land training in the Athletics and Fitness Centre at UTSC.

"I chose to attend UTSC because it’s extremely accessible," says McLean. “At all of the schools I’ve gone to in the past I’ve had to make the changes. Here I could just come in and be a regular student. It’s a really wonderful place and the sense of community is great. It’s my home away from home."

During the academic year, McLean juggles a hectic academic and athletic schedule. Five days per week she is in classes from 9am to 5pm, pursuing her specialization in sociology and minor in women’s studies. But before many students rise for their morning classes McLean is in the pool -- by 7:30am, three times per week.

On Tuesday through Friday, after spending the day at school, she swims in the evening which means training in both morning and night two of her five training days per week.

But her stamina doesn’t stop there. McLean is an avid downhill skier, an active member of UTSC’s advisory committee on accessibility for persons with disability, a member of the UTSC drama club and involved in orientation activities. She also holds a black belt in Tae Kwan Do – a martial art she hopes to return to once her Paralympic dream has been fulfilled.

“She is such an inspiration to everyone," says Laurie Anderson, fitness specialist, personal trainer, and McLean’s training assistant at UTSC.

For two years the pair has worked together in one-hour sessions three times per week to build McLean’s strength using rowing machines and weights.

“She’s just incredible," says Anderson. “In spite of her physical challenges she makes training a priority and sets a wonderful example for the other students, staff, and community members who use our facilities."

Training with Anderson, Mclean says, has dramatically improved her mobility and stability.

“I’ve become a lot stronger in just the past two years," she says. “Physically, I’m able to do things that I was never able to do before – like tie my shoe laces. My hand coordination is a lot better than it was. I’ve found that if I can practice, and eventually do, something in the water – like catch my balance if I become unsteady on my feet -- I can probably do it on land."

The swimmer says “luck and hard work helped her qualify for the Canadian Paralympic swim team, but her two biggest inspirations are her parents.

“If they hadn’t made some of the choices they made, I wouldn’t be the person I am today."  Mclean hopes her successes in life and athletics will help people focus on the “ability" in disability.

“Everyone has a challenge they have to overcome, mine’s just more obvious," she says.

While McLean gears up for the swimming competition of a lifetime,she’s maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the challenge that lies ahead in perspective.

“Whether I win or not, it’s going to be a good birthday."


UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2004: Congratulations Kaley for beating your personal best and breaking the Canadian record for the 50m butterfly!

Notes of congratulations can be forwarded to .

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