Meet Abi Tripp - Already a Champion
Abi has always been competitive. At first, it was just with her older brother Ben. No matter whether it was competing in sports or playing a board game they always challenged each other. So it was not a big surprise when both of them entered the Kingston Kids of Steel Triathlon. Abi was five and her brother was six. The Kids of Steel Triathlon is a triathlon for kids, which involves swimming, bicycling and running.
The only difference was Abi has cerebral palsy. CP is a neurological injury that presents in many ways. Symptoms include poor coordination, stiff or weak muscles, and tremors. It can impact lower limbs only, one side of the body or even the entire body including speech and vision. Abi is affected in all four limbs.
CP is caused by abnormal development or damage to the parts of the brain that control movement, balance, and posture. Most often the problems occur during pregnancy, however, they may also occur during childbirth or shortly after birth. In Abi’s case, she was born 10 weeks premature and her CP was acquired during birth. Abi’s parents thought something wasn’t right when she still wasn’t walking at 2 years of age. That was when she was diagnosed with CP.
Her family was an active family. Her dad is a white water canoeist, her mom an active hiker, her brother a long-distance runner. They were never overly protective of Abi. She did not get special treatment. As Abi says her parents were not hand-holders. In fact, as she put it, she didn’t really even think about CP until she went to school. To this day Abi does her best to not be defined by her Cerebral Palsy. It is just one part of who she is.
Growing up with a physical disability can be tough for kids. The other children may not be trying to be mean but children who are different are often not included. And the other kids did notice a difference. Abi found it hard to keep up in many games. She had poor balance and this led to more than a few jokes involving her last name Tripp.
When she was younger she wore ankle-foot orthotic (AFO) a device to give her proper heel-toe motion while walking. And this made her physical disability even more obvious. She was wearing it when she competed at the Kids of Steel Triathlon.
It just so happens Vicki Keith was also at the Triathlon that day. Vicki is a Canadian marathon swimmer and she is the coach of the Kingston Y Penguins swim team for children with physical disabilities and their able-bodied siblings. Through sport, these young people explore their abilities and find within themselves the confidence to pursue their goals and the capacity to develop the skills that will help them see the many possibilities open to them for their future.
Vicki took notice of 5-year-old Abi. She had seen that she was wearing the AFO’s when she walked in and Vicki watched her with interest. As Vicki put it, “I saw a fire inside of her and I spoke to her mother at the end of the event about the Y Penguins.”
Abi did not join the Penguins right away. Her family was off to Peru for 7 months. Peru was a lot of walking and more than a few rides on her dad’s shoulders. But when the family got back from Peru, Abi met up with another member of the Y Penguins, 16-year-old Jenna Lambert. Jenna was a member of the Penguins and she was the first female with a physical disability to swim across Lake Ontario. Jenna also has CP and she took Abi under her wing.
At first, Vicki wasn’t concerned with what level of competition Abi would reach. She just knew that the program was the right place for Abi to be. As Vicki watched Abi grow and develop, she realized that reaching the elite level in her sport was important to her—that’s when Vicki started helping her focus in that direction.
It didn’t take long for Abi’s potential as a swimmer to show. She did well in regionals when she was nine, qualified for provincials when she was ten and for nationals when she was eleven. Swimming had become her thing and she was very good. Abi had become an elite swimmer
Abi’s next big goal is to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics in August. She will have to qualify at the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Swimming Trials. They’ll be held in Toronto at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre from March 30 to April 5.
Recently Abi has had to face yet another challenge. She developed dystonia in her right arm and both of her legs. This is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions that can cause sudden, unplanned movements in her arm or legs. This does cause problems when she is swimming, but it has changed how she approaches her training.
Rather than focusing on mileage alone, Vicki has Abi concentrate on technique and how to hold that technique for a specific distance at a high rate of speed. Vicki and Abi have to continue to come up with new ways to swim the same stroke. They have also added mental relaxation exercises and regular visualization sessions.
Abi loves the freedom that being in the water gives her. The freedom to move and challenge herself without limits.
But swimming is only a part of who Abi is. She is not defined by her disability but like it or not she can’t be as independent as she would like. She uses a wheelchair to get around. When she takes a city bus she resents the fact that she needs to be strapped in. She knows it is the rule and she understands why but it still bothers her.
Kingston has come a long way for disabled people but it is an old city and it still has a long way to go. Abi challenges herself to avoid using handicapped accessories like automatic doors whenever she can. She will even pop a wheelchair wheelie to get up a curb. In fact, on occasion, she has gotten out of her wheelchair and carried it upstairs if there is no other way around. This does get her some odd stares.
Spend an hour talking with Abi and you will soon forget you are talking to someone with a physical disability and instead you will realize you are talking to an elite athlete with an incredible attitude and nothing but potential.
If you enjoyed reading about Abi's journey and would like to read another Kingston In Focus feature - hop on over to Brock Young's story here.