Supporting Canadian Athletes

Sally Thomas

Sally Thomas grew up fighting for almost everything. It was her strength; the will to push forward, passion for sport and the support of friends and family that enabled her to overcome any obstacle in her way. It’s these characteristics that also helped Sally reach her second Paralympic Games as the only Canadian athlete in the sport of Powerlifting to compete at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

Born in Toronto in 1970, Sally was diagnosed with Spina Bifida, a condition where the bones and nerves of the spine do not fully develop during the fetal stages of pregnancy. This left Sally in a wheelchair without core muscle stability and the use of her legs. Living with an adoptive family including five siblings, three of which were also disabled, Sally learned at an early age that she’d need to speak up if she was going to be heard.

She had to fight for wheelchair accessibility right from the start. At her elementary school it was a challenge just to win the right to attend and then there was the constant issue of accessibility. “I remember one day at school there was a special snake exhibit in one of the rooms on the second floor” Sally recalls. “Nobody would carry me up the stairs so I had to call my mom to come to the school and take me up there so I could participate. It was situations like that which drove me to try to improve conditions for people with disabilities.”

At age ten, Sally’s mother introduced her to basketball and track and field. As the first child in the family willing to try sport, she was hesitant at first but quickly grew to love it. “Sport empowered me to reach new heights, set goals and network with people who shared my vision”. Sally won her first 100m race shortly thereafter.

”In those days, we had to use a regular wheelchair to race. There was no such thing as a racing wheelchair”, she laughs.

She acquired her first racing wheelchair at the age of nineteen after moving to Ottawa to attend Algonquin College for Recreation Facilities Management. Eight years later, Sally was competing at the national level in wheelchair racing. Throughout those years and before her days as a powerlifter, Sally tried several different sports, including sledge hockey and basketball, deeming the latter as her favourite. Sally discovered her talent for powerlifting accidentally when her track coach had the team to do a one rep max test to see who could lift the most.

“I beat almost everyone on the team, including three men!” Sally exclaims.

Shortly after, at a multi-sport competition Sally was introduced to the national team’s Powerlifting coach. It was there where she was introduced to the sport and encouraged to “give it a go” where on her first attempt she lifted 110 pounds – Sally herself was only 80 pounds! One year later, she entered and won her first powerlifting competition and unofficially set the Canadian record. Fuelled by a passion for this sport, Sally set her goals on competing at the Paralympic Games. While opportunities to compete at the international level were limited given the relatively few number of athletes, Sally’s dream to compete at the Paralympic Games was strong.

In 2004, her dream of competing in the Paralympics came true. Sally placed seventh in Athens and immediately wanted more. Returning from Athens, she made changes in her training, hired a sport psychologist to help her prepare mentally and set her sights on competing at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. “My goal was to place higher than seventh as I am always looking to improve”, adds Sally.

Sally loves everything about powerlifting. “Athletes are separated only by gender and weight class” she explains. “You compete against athletes with all sorts of disabilities including amputations, dwarfism, spinal cord injuries and polio.” As Sally only has muscle function from the waist up, she is one of the most disabled athletes in her weight class. This lack of classification within her sport provides a challenge for her and instils a sense of satisfaction when competition goes well.

Unfortunately, Sally spent her stay at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games in a hospital bed fighting double pneumonia and was unable to compete.

If you had asked Sally if she would continue to compete after the 2008 Beijing Games before her trip, she would have leaned towards retirement. “If I was to continue, it would be more for other people. I am very happy with what I have accomplished over the years”, she said. Ask her now and she’ll tell you she’s ready to continue competing, at least until Worlds in 2010.

Sally developed a powerful voice at a young age and needed to find a platform where it would be heard. Athlete leadership was her answer and shortly after, her passion.

At age 25, Sally joined the board of a local sports organization – the National Capital Sports Council of the Disabled, an organization the runs sport and sport outreach programs for people with disabilities. She has been in that position for over 10 years and has seen a great deal of change and is hopeful there is more to come. She also currently holds a position on the board of directors for the Ottawa-Carleton Wheelchair Sports Association.

Sally has also found a voice within her sport as the athlete representative for powerlifting. It is here that she has been a role model and mentor to developing athletes over the years. As the athlete rep for powerlifting, Sally wants to see an increase in the amount of wheelchair sports televised. “Athletes are athletes and Paralympians train just as hard as Olympians, they may have different challenges to overcome, but sport is sport” believes Sally; “I think the more people know about wheelchair sports, the more will become involved. I want to be a part of that movement”.

One venue that allows Sally to speak her mind and learn from others with similar issues is the AthletesCAN Forum where athletes from over 60 sports have the opportunity to meet and discuss current topics at the high performance level. “This event allows us to work together, to solve problems and begin steps to prompt change and improve our sport system” she says. Sally did just that at the 2008 Mitsubishi Motors AthletesCAN Forum in Mississauga, ON at the beginning of October. She was able to contribute more this year, and in the process, learned more about the sport system and how she can help build infrastructure for the sport of powerlifting.

Looking ahead, Sally is planning on returning to school. Ideally, she would like to work in the school system with children as a teacher’s aid. “I’ve always gotten along well with the difficult kids”, states Sally. “I really think I have something to contribute to the next generation.”

No matter what path Sally takes, sport will always be a big part of her life.

“I really want to stay involved” she says, “and if I can’t compete, athlete leadership allows me to do that.”

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