Paralympics countdown: Mortimer sets sights on gold in the pool
The Olympic mascot Wenlock, left, and the Paralympic mascot Mandeville strike an Usain Bolt pose with school children, as they are unveiled to the media as the mascots for London 2012, at a school in London, Wednesday, May 19, 2010. (AP / Matt Dunham)
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, August 29, 2011 8:39AM EDT
TORONTO - One of the first things Summer Mortimer did after shedding her wheelchair was ease herself back into the pool.
Swimming was therapy, a chance for the 18-year-old to heal her broken limbs.
But less than two years later, and a year from the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Paralympics, the swimmer is one of Canada's best, a multi-world-record holder. And what began as a chance to improve her health has become the opportunity to realize a lifelong dream of competing on the world stage.
"As soon as I was out of the wheelchair teaching myself how to walk I was teaching myself how to swim," Mortimer said from her home in Ancaster, Ont. "I got back into swimming because it was good for my health and it was healing my feet, but I definitely was aware of the (world-record) times and I knew they were possible."
Possible was an understatement. Mortimer has shattered world records more than a dozen times, and currently holds the world marks in the 50-metre freestyle, 100 free, and 100 backstroke. She held the 200 I.M. world record before it recently was broken.
While Canada's team for the Paralympics, Aug. 29-Sept. 9, won't be chosen until next summer, Mortimer is gunning for a medal in every event she swims in in her Olympic debut.
Her swift rise up the ranks isn't surprising considering she'd been an able-bodied swimmer from the age of nine, competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympic trials. She already boasted a swimmer's strong upper body and lungs. She's even named for American swim star Summer Sanders.
She was also a competitive trampoline athlete, and dreamed of competing in the Olympics in either one of her two chosen sports. It would be trampoline that would ultimately determine her path.
In November of 2009, Mortimer was practising on the double mini trampoline, and landed feet first on a concrete corner from 20 feet in the air. She shattered the majority of bones in her left foot and two in her right. She underwent three surgeries which left her with six screws and a metal plate holding together the bones in her left foot. She has two screws in the right.
She spent six months in a wheelchair while doctors considered amputating her feet. She was told she would never walk again.
"I was on crutches for a year-and-a-half after that, and I'm walking, and now I'm in the Paralympic side of sport," Mortimer said.
She said it's the side she prefers.
"People say it's athletes with disabilities, we don't have disabilities, we have different abilities, we're doing the exact same thing as everyone else is doing with different obstacles we have to face every day," she said. "Every day I face a different pain level, I face my feet locking up on me, I face not being able to walk sometimes, in the morning and at night I can't walk. I've got a high pain tolerance, and I take medication.
"But you see people with spina bifida swimming, and you're so inspired by them. Most people would give up if something like that ever happened to them. But these people have the drive and the motivation to be doing the exact same things that everyone else is doing, with different abilities. It's a lot more inspiring and motivational for sure."
She laments the lack of attention given to Paralympic athletes, and hopes the buzz created in Canada around the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics will carry over to the London Games.
Mortimer trains in local YMCA pools with her dad Craig as her coach, and logs 30 to 40 kilometres a week in the pool, plus four sessions a week in the weight room. Her feet limit her from the long sessions she was accustomed to putting in before her accident -- six to seven-kilometre pool workouts, 10 times a week, plus weight training and running.
"Now I can't run and I can't do squats, my legs I can't bend them if I'm standing, so I've found ways to modify," Mortimer said. "But I train 30-40K a week, and I'm in the weight room three or four times a week."
She's also an aspiring artist. She and her twin sister Julia, a dancer, collaborated on a children's book, Summer doing the illustrations and Julia writing the story.
Mortimer stars on a Canadian team that has a strong tradition in Paralympic sport. Canada collected 23 medals in the pool at the Beijing Paralympics -- seven gold, seven silver and nine bronze.
Approximately 150 athletes are expected to wear the Maple Leaf at the London Paralympics. The goal is to finish in the top eight countries, based on gold medal count.
The 144-member team in Beijing won 50 medals (19 gold, 10 silver and 21 bronze) to place seventh overall.