In 1982, Paralympian Tammy Cunnington’s life was changed forever when she suffered a severe trauma at an airshow near Ponoka where she and her family lived. Cunnington nearly died from her injuries which limited the use of her legs and left arm.
In a speech at the 11th Annual Special Olympics Celebrity Breakfast at Westerner Park on Tuesday, Cunnington described the devastation she felt after hearing she would have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. It was at this time, according to Cunnington, that she persevered through her first battle on the way to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Cunnington’s doctor at the time was telling her and her family that her mobility would be limited to a wheelchair that was large, cumbersome and didn’t allow for movement.
“The doctors believed that would be my life,” she said. “I was lucky to have a really great physiotherapist who believed there was more for me. She knew about parasports, she knew about Paralympics and she knew about the lives of other people in my situation. She knew there was more for me and ordered my first sports chair. It was a tiny wheelchair basketball chair and I got to pick my own colour – I had a purple chair of course.”
Once Cunnington got home from the hospital, she instructed her father to throw out the other chair – as she had no intention of using it. This led to a lifetime of Paralympic sporting which started with wheelchair basketball and eventually led to triathlon – her first shot at the 2016 Rio Games.
“I was on the road to Rio in my mind and then a year and half out – they decided not every classification of the group of us competing would be competing in Rio,” she said. “I bought a new bike, spent all this time training and they pulled my classification. The coach I had hired for swimming, pushed me to switch to swimming. It was different but exciting and the spark was back after thinking it was over.”
While swim meets were a new experience, Cunnington quickly excelled. She currently holds a number of Canadian swimming records and won two bronzes and a silver medal at the 2015 Para Pan-Am Games in Toronto. After her success in Toronto, Cunnington was on the fast-track to Rio. Upon arrival in Brazil, another roadblock hit.
“It didn’t go the way I was expecting it too,” she said. “I had a rough time in Rio. The village is a challenging place and I unfortunately got very ill and was bordering on pneumonia. It was heartbreaking not going for best times, but I had to look back on the journey that got me there – the work and the time I had put in since I was injured, not just the two years of the road to Rio. I raced all my races. There was some my coach wanted me to scratch. I raced all of my events and I finally raced a best time on the last day, but it was a little too short to make finals.”
Her experience in Rio was saved after experiencing the welcoming nature of the Brazilian people – who treated all the athletes like celebrities regardless if they medaled. Following Rio, Cunnington is continuing to train – currently for the 2017 World Championships in the fall. Always fighting and overcoming is the message that Cunnington wanted everyone to carry with them – especially the Special Olympic athletes present.
“Not everyday will be rainbows, lollipops and sunshine, but everyday gives you a chance to fight, overcome and achieve something you haven’t done before,” she said. “That is still what I am doing now. From the time I have been six I have been fighting. I would rather continue to face those challenges everyday and fight all those things then have lost that first fight in 1982.”
Cunnington noted it is important people recognize that struggles will happen and it is important to experience them and then overcome them.
“It’s about really loving life,” she said. “I think people get caught up in the feeling that everything has to be spectacular, or everything has to be fantastic. It is not going to be like that. It is okay to let bad days be bad days, but also knowing the next day you are getting up and starting again – fighting again.”