Leona Emberson

Paddles, Running Paths and Friends

In the summer of 2009 I received an e-mail that changed my life in ways I never thought possible. The Rideau Canoe Club in Ottawa was starting an adaptive canoe/kayak program. I loved water and boats; but I had never successfully participated in a community recreation program. The only sport I had ever played was goalball (a sport specifically designed for people who are blind or partially sighted). I wasn’t sure if a partially sighted person could participate in a sprint kayak program, and I didn’t trust able-bodied people to accept me into their sport.

As a child I spent many years socially isolated. These early negative experiences left me fearful and guarded when interacting with people who did not have disabilities. I felt safe in the blind community, with my blind friends, playing sports designed for the blind, and working to support others who were blind. Leaving the security of the blind community I had surrounded myself in was scary.

To my surprise the kayak program was fantastic. I was provided a one-on-one guide who gave me verbal directions and instruction on my technique. I was participating in an able-bodied sport. My guide was treating me with respect, encouragement, and support. What was most important was that I trusted her. I trusted her not only to keep me safe on the water, but to treat me like she would treat any non-disabled person. This experience gave me confidence not only in myself, but in the sighted community.

The next winter I approached a local run club seeking a guide and support to complete a 10k run. To my delight, they agreed to support me. Since that first race I have completed many more. I am now a sprint kayaker, a runner, and a triathlete. I have won numerous medals on the goalball court and in my kayak lane. I have completed run distances many people cannot walk.

The sports I participate in, the medals I have won, and the physical milestones I have reached give me joy. However, these achievements are not what changed my life. The people sport brought into my life are what changed my life - from the first kayak guide who treated me just like everyone else, to the run club that accepted me into their able-bodied program, and all the sighted friends I have made along the way. My guides provide me the support I need to participate in sport; but more importantly, they provide me the opportunity to participate in life. Through their kindness and selflessness, I am part of my community. Because of the people sport has brought me to, I have confidence and a sense of belonging in a world I once feared and hid from.