Riley McLean (left) and Jacob Brayshaw take a break from swim practice at the Vernon Recreation Complex aquatic centre with coach Renate Terpstra.

Riley McLean (left) and Jacob Brayshaw take a break from swim practice at the Vernon Recreation Complex aquatic centre with coach Renate Terpstra.

Riley takes on the Pan Am Games

Riley McLean is just 15 but is making his mark in the world of para-swimming

His five siblings were all involved with the Kokanee Swim Club, so there was never any question that Riley McLean would also be spending a lot of time in the water.

But for the 15-year-old Seaton secondary student, learning to swim was a little more of a challenge. Born with arthrogryposis, Riley can frequently be seen around town on his Shriners-sponsored Segway.

“I got into it when I was in Grade 8 — my dad wanted me to because my family was nervous that if I had no way of doing exercise and if I gained weight my legs would not hold me,” he said.

Arthrogryposis is a congenital condition that in Riley’s case restricts the use of all of the joints in his body with the exception of his hips and spinal column. Since his legs are in a fixed-straight position, a wheelchair was not an option, but the two-wheeled Segway works nicely.

“Against all odds, Riley is cognitively strong, socially gregarious and skateboard-enabled,” said his dad, Keith McLean. “He is an athlete who refuses to be trapped by the limitations of his body.”

Now a Canadian record holder in two para-swimming events — the 50-metre freestyle and 50-backstroke, Riley is on his way to the Parapan Am Games in Toronto, where the teen will be one of 1,500 athletes from 28 countries competing in 15 sports.

“When I first started, I never expected to go to cool places, but coach Renate Terpstra started telling me about all the cool places I could go,” he said. “At the first Can-Am games in Edmonton I realized there were lots of other swimmers like me. I though I would be the only swimmer with a disability but I got to Edmonton and saw lots of others with a disability and I made lots of friends. In two years I have become a national and international swimmer and am making my way to the Paralympics in 2020.”

Terpstra, who volunteers her time to coach Riley, said training an athlete with a disability simply involves a shift in attitude.

“This has been a learning curve for me. It’s a lot of thinking outside the box,” said Terpstra, originally from the Netherlands, where she was a PE teacher, ran a sports training school and was a top-ranked European handball player. “The interesting thing with swimming with a disability is that they are all different, so to start I had Riley learn with young kids — he wasn’t a fast swimmer at the beginning. And he needs a lot of space to swim. He can use his arms a little bit but he needs room to turn around. He is amazing and he is just getting more fit.”

Keith said while he always believed Riley could do anything he set his mind to, he wasn’t sure if swimming was going to be one of those activities. Adopted at 18 months old, Riley is the youngest of six children for Keith — aboriginal support worker at Beairsto — and his wife, Odette.

“He didn’t just wake up and think ‘I want to be a competitive swimmer,’ it was a process,” said Keith. “I once suggested to his sister that I didn’t think he would ever be able to swim. ‘Dad,’ she scoffed, ‘everyone swims in this family.’ She was right and, with her mother, taught him.”

Riley entered the Aqua-dapt program at the Vernon aquatic centre and made great gains in his aquatic abilities.

“When he started with the Vernon Kokanee, he received incredible support, including financial support, solicited by club president Ken Brown, from anonymous local donators,” said Keith.

Riley began competing 20 months ago as a way of meeting the requirements for his PE courses at Seaton, and Keith said the school has been very accommodating, with principal Jackie Kersey assuring him that she and math teacher Darren Johnson used to be competitive swimmers so there was no need to explain why, when he swims at a national meet in Toronto on the weekend, he needs to leave school on a Wednesday.

“He still has to do his homework, though.”

It’s been a busy spring and summer for Riley, who recently competed in the Kamloops Classic Swim Meet as preparation for the AAAs in Victoria, which helped prepare him for the National Swim Camp in Ottawa, and the Parapan Ams.

“There is a lineup of meets anticipated should he be successful at the Pan Am Games, but for now we deal with what is within reach,” said Keith.

Riley performs the breaststroke without the aid of his arms. This is accomplished by using his gluteus maximus and adductor magnus muscles to bring his legs into a perfectly horizontal position, then form a V to perform a scissor-like action to propel himself forward — using only his legs. There are guards posted alongside the pool to disqualify him if he deviates from the described motion.

The McLeans are a close-knit family and when they are all together — including Riley’s adult siblings and Keith and Odette’s four grandchildren — they can usually be found in the backyard pool.

For Riley, swimming takes up a big chunk of his time, but he still finds time to skateboard, ride dirt bikes and play video games.

“I have thousands of other interests,” said Riley, a French immersion student at Seaton who starts Grade 10 in the fall.

His dad said Riley’s disability has never been an issue with his peers because he has been with the same group since all of them started kindergarten.

“With French immersion, they start together and they go through Grade 12 and they are all together all the way through school, so if you take the mystery out of it, you avoid the speculation because the kids know all about it.”

Terpstra has also coached Sarah Mehain, a 20-year-old Seaton grad now at McGill University. Mehain competed at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London and has just won the bronze medal at the IPC World Swimming Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.

“It’s an honour to work with these two phenomenal athletes,” said Terpstra. “We say handicapable — I’m so proud of these kids.”

At a recent Vernon School District board meeting, Mehain shared some of her story.

“I first heard about Paralympic swimming when I was 11,” she said. “I  have cerebral palsy so one side of my body is weaker — I do the butterfly with one arm.

“Swimming has created so many possibilities in my life. You see a bunch of new opportunities in your life. It’s a great community.”

As for Riley’s family, they’ll be glued to the TV for the next three weeks, cheering on the teen as he competes in his events: the 50-, 100-, 200-free and 50-back.

“He has gone way beyond what we imagined — we had no idea whether Riley would even be capable of walking or speaking and as he has progressed, he is way beyond anything we could have dreamed of for him,” said Keith. “He continues to progress and to succeed and he is motivated. He has a lot of self-discipline, he has made a lot of friends, there are times when he has to say ‘I can’t stay up late’ because he has to train.

“His whole life we’ve always taken the approach that it’s not that he can’t do something, it’s how can he do something and that’s a good approach. For the longest time, he didn’t know what handicapped was, he said ‘I think it was something that happened to other people.’ Once you meet Riley nobody thinks of the disability or the handicap. For me, I always have to bite my lip when he is trying something and that we’re not going to be picking up body parts, but he has been abstaining from skateboarding in preparation for the Games.”

Keith said his son has learned to accept the thunderous applause that erupts when he completes his events.

“He used to complain to me, ‘Dad, can’t they see that I was last?’ He has learned to accept the attention, perhaps even enjoy it.”

Attending para-swim meets has given Riley new perspective on his abilities and prospects, said Keith.

“As local para-swimming celebrity Sarah Mehain has said, ‘It is not until you attend these meets that you realize that you are not alone.’

“Riley is blazing a new trail but he is not doing it alone.  Tremendous effort has been expended by family, friends, individuals, community, and school to help to clear the path — a tribute to the community we live in.”

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Formerly with the Kokanee, where she spent 10 years as a coach, Terpstra has been busy setting up Okanagan Para Swimming (OPS), for athletes with disabilities.

“The Rec Centre and aquatic coordinator Gary Lefebvre have been so supportive,” she said.

The program, for kids 18 and under with physical disabilities, is part of the Aqua Awareness Program offered by the Vernon Recreation Centre. Older athletes with a disability have the option to register for private coaching.

“OPS provides swimmers with a physical disability a high quality program and outstanding coaching in a fun, safe and supportive environment,” said Terpstra. “Our athletes achieve both personal and performance excellence, in and out of the pool.”

Terpstra said, through swimming, participants will learn how to set goals and develop self-discipline while building self-confidence.

She said participants will work towards the opportunity to swim at meets, where both able-bodied athletes and athletes with disabilities compete together.

“These kids don’t fit in the regular program and there are too many kids and not enough lane space. I have been with some of these kids for many years and have worked with the national coach, have been to seven Can-Am games. I want to promote long-term athletic development.”

The program starts in September and is open to swimmers from throughout the Okanagan, who can join by training once, twice or three times a week. Training will take place in Vernon Mondays from 3:15 to 4 p.m., Wednesdays from 3:15 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to noon.

For more information and to register, contact Terpstra at 250-307-3964 or email swimcoach@renateterpstra.com or drop by the rec centre front desk.