Swim coach Renate Terpstra chats with swimmer Jacob Brayshaw during a training session with Okanagan Para Swimming at the Vernon Aquatic Centre. The 13-year-old did well at his first two swim meets and will be classified provincially by Swim BC in January.

Swim coach Renate Terpstra chats with swimmer Jacob Brayshaw during a training session with Okanagan Para Swimming at the Vernon Aquatic Centre. The 13-year-old did well at his first two swim meets and will be classified provincially by Swim BC in January.

Bringing out the best in swimmers

Swim coach Renate Terpstra coaches young athletes through Okanagan Para Swimming at the Vernon Aquatic Centre

“I could never do anything bad, people always recognize me,” said Jacob Brayshaw as he took off his swimming cap and shook out his trademark curly red hair.

Just as well then that the active 13-year-old has his sights set on doing something good — competing in para swim events in Canada and internationally in the future.

“I could always swim but I wanted to swim better and compete. Mom (Michelle McCullough) used to be a competitive swimmer in her teens and I thought it was something I’d like to try,” said Brayshaw, a Seaton secondary Grade 8 student who has been working with para swim coach Renate Terpstra and Okanagan Para Swimming at the Vernon Recreation Centre for the past few months.

“You should see where I started in May compared to now. It’s not even the same person, I’ve improved so much. Renate is an awesome coach. I’m ready for races now.”

He encourages other young people with physical challenges to find a way to do what they want to do.

“You should do it, even if you are afraid. People might look at you. People look at me because I walk differently but I think people don’t stare at you because they’re mean. They’re just curious. I’ve found out that para swimming is a big organization and it’s an awesome sport because it can be adapted to any disabilities. It’s great for strength and flexibility and relatively easy on your body if you have a disability. It’s a great sport to try. I notice that it’s made me stronger.”

Para swimmers are classified nationally and internationally so they can take part in competitions.

Brayshaw looks to his friend Riley McLean, 15, a Grade 10 Seaton student, who is already classified and competing, with hopes to qualify for the national team to represent Canada in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“When I started competing, I realized there were so many swimmers with disabilities and it motivated me,” said McLean. “It was hard at first but I knew I had a chance to win if I worked at it. If I didn’t have Renate as a coach, I know I wouldn’t be this far. I would tell other people that you need to be determined and set your mind to your goal.”

McLean’s father, Keith McLean, is proud of the progress his son has made in the two years he has been working with Terpstra.

“Riley’s older siblings always took him swimming and he was doing swimming for PE credit in school but he wanted to do more,” he said. “This is terrific. We’re so lucky to have Renate. She gives a lot of volunteer time to this and she sees the potential in everyone.

“The swimming has had such a positive impact on Riley’s life overall. He’s more focused and happier. He’s been to meets and even broken his own records. He’ll be going to the Can-Am games in North Dakota and the Paralympic trials in Toronto.”

Friends have set up a fund so the community can help. See Riley swimming at meets and make a donation at www.Riley2Rio.com.

Michelle McCullough is pleased to see Jacob doing so well in para swimming.

“He’s really sociable and loves sports, watching everything and playing electric wheelchair soccer. I had him in the water since he was an infant and now, encouraged by Riley, he’s hopeful he can get to the Pan-Am games and Olympics some day,” she said. “He loves the program and is getting some of his friends to learn to swim. We are very grateful to Renate.”

The program is close to Terpstra’s heart.

She swam all her life while growing up in the Netherlands and trained and worked as a physical education teacher. She and her family came to Canada when she was an adult and she was involved as a coach with the Vernon Kokanees; her sons, Wouter and Florian, were also in the program.

“I just loved the kids and helping them become better swimmers and I love seeing the success of the para swimmers, what it can do in their lives,” she said.

Terpstra coached local para swimmer Sarah Mehain to the Paralympic Games in London in 2012 and was pleased to see Mehain get a swimming scholarship to McGill University.

“This is really where my heart is now. There had never been a program here at the Vernon Recreation Centre for para swimmers who wanted to focus on competitive swimming, and in May I started one with the help of Gary Lefebvre, who is the aquatic coordinator,” she said, adding that the centre has the Aqua Dapt program for swimmers of any age and ability to work with trained instructors on programs suited to individual needs. See www.gvrec.ca or call 250-545-6035 for information and registration for both programs.

“With para swim, we start with an assessment, then go on to one-on-one sessions. There must be more kids who could benefit from this program. It’s wonderful to see them as they improve. When they go on to competition, they see that they are not alone and what can be achieved. Sarah once said to me, ‘I never thought there were more people like me and I could see the ones who were older living a good life, going to university, getting married and having families. It changed my outlook on life.’”

Terpstra, who works closely with Swim Canada, is happiest when she’s working with the young swimmers.

“When I listen to my heart, it just tells me that I have to do this.”

Starting Jan. 5, Okanagan Para Swimming will meet at the pool Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 to 4:15 p.m. For more information, call Terpstra at 250-307-3964.