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Promoting access and accessibility: An interview with Para triathlete and FACE™ grant recipient, Leanne Taylor

In 2018, Leanne Taylor was riding mountain bikes with her fiancé on the Bison Butte Trail in Winnipeg when she hit an unlucky bump and took a spill over her handlebars. Taking a fall is a regular thing for mountain bikers, but this fall was much different. Leanne dislocated her spine between the 9th and 10th thoracic vertebrae and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

As part of her rehab, Leanne discovered Para triathlon and competed in her first race just 8 months after her accident. In the five years since, Leanne has become a world-class athlete with her sights set on competing at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. She also received a Petro-Canada Fuelling Athlete and Coaching Excellence (FACE™) grant in both 2020 and 2022.

Picture of Leanne Taylor, Para triathlete
Photo Courtesy of Leanne Taylor

In advance of the annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3), I caught up with Leanne to talk about how her training is progressing, the impact Para sport has had on her life and how her wedding planning is going.

PT: Thank you so much for taking some time out of your very busy schedule to talk with me today! As you know, December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), a time specifically to celebrate achievements and promote inclusivity. From your perspective, what changes or initiatives do you believe are most important for fostering a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities in sports and society?

When a lot of people see a person with a disability, they think "That's so sad. That must be really hard." Myself, I'm a wheelchair user so people think "Life as a wheelchair user must be so hard."

But what makes life as a wheelchair user hard is lack of accessibility as opposed to the disability itself.

For example, there are some physical things I'm excluded from as a wheelchair user; however, there are a lot of physical things I'm not excluded from because of my disability but because of lack of accessibility or access. For example, I can swim 5k no problem - but I can't get into certain pools.

Another example, at certain sporting events, if a person with a disability wants to buy a ticket in an accessible spot, they can often only bring one friend. It’s all these little things that exclude you from full participation in what is “normal” or available to everyone else.

People think that disability is sad, but they don’t realise that the lack of accessibility is actually what’s sad.

 

PT: So, an important focus would be on finding ways to make these places and events more accessible?

Yeah. For example, if I approach an event and ask, “Can I participate?” a lot of the time people are uncomfortable with how to make it happen, so the answer is “no”. Not because they couldn’t do it, but because they are uncomfortable with not knowing how and with asking for help.

But in a lot of cases, people really want the answer to be “yes”, so they come back to me and ask what I need for an event to be accessible. This is hard for people to do! It can be difficult to say “yes”, but the people who are willing to have those conversations can open a lot of doors.

 

PT: What advice would you have for individuals with a disability who may be hesitant to pursue sports or physical activities?

When I think about getting into Para sports, I think about how I felt when I wanted to go swimming for the first time after my accident. One of the biggest challenges when going into a new sport, as a person with a disability, is that you don't know what you're doing. And people are going to watch you – people with a disability attract attention – not because they are unkind but because they are interested. That’s what can make trying something new difficult and that can create a lot of fear.

Something that motivates me when I’m in a unique environment – and people are looking at me and I feel a bit shy – is that the next time people see someone with a disability in this environment, it won't attract so much attention.

It's hard sometimes to be motivated to do something for just yourself, but then you realize that every time you go out and do something new or uncomfortable, you're doing a service to the entire disabled community. We can all become comfortable with seeing people with disabilities in these spaces.

Picture of Leanne Taylor, Para triathlete lined up in the water, ready to race the swimming portion of a triathlon
Photo Courtesy of Leanne Taylor

PT: You have several videos on your social media about making your home more accessible. Have you received any feedback on those videos?

I posted those videos because one time when I was out biking, I was approached by a woman who had followed my social media. She said that she had someone in her life who had become a wheelchair user and that she was curious how to make her home feel more friendly and accessible to that person, especially since she didn’t own the home. Our first home wasn’t originally designed to be fully wheelchair accessible, so I’m able to show the different, incremental ways you can make things a little bit easier or more accessible for a person in a wheelchair.

 

PT: How’s training going? Are the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games the next big event you’re working towards?

Training’s really good. There are athletes who absolutely love racing and there are athletes who love training; and I love training! For the Paris Games, qualification happens over a year period and is based on the top three scores you receive in qualifying events – then they take the top nine athletes in the class. I’ve got two really good scores so far. The third event was supposed to be the test event for Para triathlon at the Paris Games, but the water quality wasn’t good enough to allow us to swim. So I’ll be doing another full triathlon in March. If I perform like I’ve been performing, I should qualify – but we won’t know ‘til then. My coach tells me I should stop worrying!

 

PT: Sports can bring you to some high highs and some low lows. What motivates you to continue pushing boundaries and setting new challenges for yourself?

When you think about what you're trying to accomplish, you do have goals that are based on medals and race finishes and specific results, but if that's the only thing you're there for, you put yourself in a position to be heartbroken when things outside of your control happen that don't allow you to achieve the results that you wanted. Triathlon is, in some ways, a chaotic sport and anything can happen – a flat tire, different maps, race crashes – that can impact the results.

As much as I want a medal in Paris, it can't be the only thing keeping me coming back. So when I approach a start line, I take a minute to tell myself that I’ve been brave and worked hard and pushed past so much to be there in the first place. I take a minute to appreciate the skills I’ve developed and the kind of person it took to even get to that start line. Whether or not I get the medal, when I get home from the Games, it’s just a piece of metal and the person I’ve become is the real accomplishment.

Picture of Leanne Taylor, Para triathlete, in her racing wheelchair, racing along a track.
Photo Courtesy of Leanne Taylor

PT: How has participating in Para triathlon impacted your overall well-being and quality of life?

When I was first injured, people would come into my hospital room and cry which I understand because my kind of injury is sad and traumatic for everyone.  But I didn’t want to be the person that people think when they see me “Oh that's so sad what happened to her.” When I was still in the ICU, one of the things I said to my fiancé is that I want to build a life, after my injury, that is so good that we wouldn't go back and undo the injury.

That’s a really tall order and at the beginning, it probably wasn't true, but I've been injured for five years, and I can honestly say that if I had the option to go back, I wouldn't do it. The connections I’ve made with other people, the confidence that I've built in myself and the life that I have built for my family is so positive, and is just the place that I feel like I should be. So much of that can be attributed to Para sport, the environment that it puts you in, and the people that you meet and how much they teach you about what's really important.

 

PT: On a personal note, you’re getting married soon. How is wedding planning going, particularly as a person with a disability?

We chose a venue specifically that is accessible. There are going to be at least three wheelchair users, so we wanted to make sure people could navigate around tables easily. Also, one of my teammates who is visually impaired was originally going to be able to attend (sadly, now she isn’t). But at the time we discussed having someone narrate the ceremony; since she is completely blind, she wouldn’t necessarily know what’s going on. We thought it would be nice to open our guests’ eyes a bit to the experience of other people.

 

PT: Leanne, thank you so much for sharing your story and your insights! Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials; we wish you all the best. And we’ll be there rooting for you on your road to Paris.

If you want to follow Leanne’s Para sport journey, you can check out her Instagram and her TikTok. We also have more of our interview with Leanne on our own Instagram. We’re grateful for Leanne’s dedication to advocating for more inclusive spaces for persons with disabilities – a key theme in the observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities – alongside her own Para sport goals and are proud to support her athletic dreams.

 Since 1988, Petro-Canada has supported over 3,500 Canadian athletes and their coaches by providing more than $13.5 million in financial support through the Fuelling Athlete and Coaching Excellence (FACE™) grant program. Hundreds of these athletes have then gone on to represent Canada at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Learn more about the FACE programand how we’ve been supporting Canadian athletes and coaches for 35 years.

 

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