Paddling for Health and Inclusion

We get plenty of chances to be inspired by professional athletes. But the media can create a stereotype of what an athlete is “supposed” to be. Yet athletes come in all bodies, ages and sizes, and everybody deserves to have role models that look like them. In this series, we introduce you to inspiring athletes who live outside those stereotypes.

When Susan Siepel was four, she learned to swim as physical therapy for arthrogryposis, a rare and not well-understood variety of conditions that present in utero and lead to stiffness in multiple joints. In Siepel’s case, it affects the range of motion in her joints and muscles in her legs.

Swimming afforded her freedom of movement and a chance to compete with her peers. In addition to competing successfully against able-bodied kids on her high school swim team, as a para-swimmer, she broke six state games records and three national age records in freestyle and backstroke.

[Read: Plant-Based Diets for Athletes.]

At seven, her love of animals and wish for a pony melded with her physiotherapy, and she began horseback riding lessons at the McIntyre Pony Riding for the Disabled Centre in Queensland, Australia. Initially, there was a concern that she would not be able to sit on a horse due to her disability, and it was recommended that she try carriage driving instead. But Seipel was unwavering. “I was so determined that I wanted to ride. They gave me the opportunity, and I instantly became addicted to horses.”

That led to 17 years of competitive dressage, including 13 appearances at the Australian Disabled National Championships and winning the Australian National Championship three times: in 1999, 2006 and 2008. In her international debut at the Pacific Rim Para-Equestrian Dressage International in Canada, she won bronze.

[READ: Wheelchair Rugby Player Blazing a New Trail to the Paralympics.]

Paddling to Success

In 2010, the expense of the sport forced her to take a break. It was at a “come and try” kayaking event, where she got involved in the sport of paracanoe. Soon she joined her local club and was training regularly. At her first national regatta in 2014, she was selected for the Australian Paracanoe Team. At her first appearance at the International Canoe Federation World Championships in Moscow, Russia, she hit a personal best time and came in sixth.

Since then she’s been racking up medals, including a bronze medals in kayak and three consecutive gold medals in outrigger canoe at the World Championships. She qualified for the Paralympic Games in both Rio, where she won bronze, and Tokyo in 2021, where she competed in five events and won silver in the Women’s Va’a Single 200 meter.

Seipel loves competing and training, and she acknowledges that “on the water and in the gym, some sessions are very intense and not the most enjoyable to do but they are an important part of the process. You must push your limits in order to improve.” Though, she adds, it’s not just about the competition: Seiple notes that sports have allowed her to “travel the world and meet incredible people.”

[READ: Should Athletes Play Through Pain?]

Inclusion for All Athletes

She knows that some people don’t see people with disabilities as stereotypical athletes. Seipel believes that the Paralympic movement — which includes the elite Paralympic Games and confronting and challenging stereotypes — is creating social change not just for para-athletes, but for all people living with disabilities. Siepel notes “para-athletes are great role models with incredible stories about achieving success in sport, often while overcoming stigma, social inequality and even discrimination.”

“I have seen a lot of positive change during my time in sport,” Seiple say. “I think one of the best things I have experienced is the integration of para-sports into mainstream programs. In para-canoe, for example, inclusion of para-athletes with able-bodied athletes happens in training as well as at competitions. While this is not a widely held practice, Seipel and other para-athletes believe that it creates a mutually motivating environment, a culture of equality and reflects social views towards integration rather than segregation.

“I would like to see this happen in all sports and at all levels of competition,” says Seipel. It should be noted that no community is a monolith and not all para-athletes, or athletes in general feel this way. Some para-athletes argue that it is impossible to create an even playing field with able-bodied athletes in their sports and with their disabilities, in some disciplines able-bodied athletes argue that advances in technology give para-athletes unfair advantages.

In terms of event inclusion, Siepel recommends that events plan for diversity from the very first step, assessing accessibility of the venue from the bathrooms, to parking and building access and the ability to access the podium itself. Seipel points out that one of the best ways to assure accessibility is to hire para-athletes and include them on organizing committees and boards. And it shouldn’t stop with the athletes, all sporting events should “consider how spectators with a disability will attend the event without barriers,” Seipel explains.

When it comes to fellow athletes, she asks that we remember that para-athletes should be treated with the same respect as any other athlete. “Common courtesy, such as offering help is fine, but don’t be offended if the answer is no. Para-athletes usually arrange assistance for themselves if required,” Seipel says.

She also points out that asking questions — like “What happened to you?” or “What’s wrong with you?” — can be rude and confronting, reminding us that “the best strategy is accepting people as they are.”

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