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Para-athlete Jessica shines at Guadalajara games

Some athletes might be disappointed to place fifth in a race with only five or six competitors, but para-athlete Jessica Lewis was thrilled.

She took part in wheelchair track in the Para-pan American games in Guadalajara, Mexico for athletes with disabilities this month.

Miss Lewis placed fourth in two races and fifth in another. She also achieved a personal best in the 400-metre race.

“I felt really good and I was really proud of myself,” she said. “I worked so hard. I was racing against people who had been training for ten or 12 years, and I had only been training seriously for two years. Give me another ten years like they have and see where I am then!”

Miss Lewis was born with diastomatomyelia, a congenital disorder in which a part of the spinal cord is split, usually at the level of the upper lumbar vertebra. She is wheelchair-bound. She started in the adaptive sports programme at WindReach Recreational Village at age five.

She then warned the adaptive sports coordinator at WindReach, that she would one day have her job.

At 18 years old she is even more determined.

Miss Lewis is currently studying recreational and leisure studies with a focus on therapeutic recreation at Brock University in Canada.

“I just think that I would have a different perspective to the job than an able-bodied person,” said Miss Lewis. “I would understand people with disabilities more. I think that having someone who is going through the same things you are and can fully understand you, can be more helpful.”

Miss Lewis, who recently graduated from the Bermuda High School for Girls, has been doing wheelchair track for four years. She has also competed in para-equestrian events, basketball and tennis.

“Now, I am just focusing on my track,” she said. “I do miss working with horses though.”

She said she really enjoyed the competitive aspects of wheelchair racing. It keeps her active and it gives her something to do. Three days a week she does strength training in the gym, using weights to build up her upper body, and then four days a week she trains on the track with a coach.

“I enjoy all of it,” she said. “I enjoy learning the new techniques and trying to get better. I have been inspired by American wheelchair racer, Anjali Forber-Pratt. She came down to WindReach once. She has taken me under her wing and dropped hints at what races she will be at so we can race together. She is very encouraging.

“I love the adrenalin rush that you get before a race, and I like trying to get better and improving your time. I finally beat one of my friends that I have never beaten before, the other day.”

Miss Lewis is in her first year at Brock. She said so far she has not experienced many challenges, settling in. She is enjoying being at college, and the campus is more wheelchair accessible than most of Bermuda.

“It is a nice change from Bermuda,” she said. “In Bermuda, most of the buildings don’t have a ramp to get into buildings. There was a time when we had some athletes from away visit Bermuda. We struggled to find a restaurant that was wheelchair-accessible. I am a very light weight and so can be carried upstairs, but he could not be carried and was in an electric wheelchair. It is frustrating that I have to be picked up at all.”

She hopes to do advocacy work for the disabled when she returns to Bermuda. If she could change one thing about Bermuda, she said it would be “accessibility”.

“It would also be getting everyone to treat us as equal as anybody else,” she said.

When asked if she sometimes has days where she feels sorry for herself, she answered simply: “No.”

“I do keep up a positive spirit all the time,” she said. “This is life and you can never let it destroy you. You have to face things and deal with them.”

Jessica Lewis,18, in her special wheelchair designed for track racing. (File photo).

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Published November 28, 2011 at 1:00 am (Updated November 28, 2011 at 8:34 am)

Para-athlete Jessica shines at Guadalajara games

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