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Teenager Danielle Dorris not intimidated by being youngest member of Para-swimming team heading to Rio

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By Jim Morris

The memory still brings a smile to Katarina Roxon’s face.

The veteran Para-swimmer from Kippens, NL, was working as a junior counsellor at a War Amps CHAMP program when she met an animated five-year-old named Danielle Dorris.

“She was so full of life and wanting to play with everyone,” said Roxon. “Helping the kids feel included was a big part of our role. Anywhere she went I wasn’t too far behind.”

Roxon lost track of Dorris for a few years but then began to hear stories of a young Para-swimmer in the Maritimes who was breaking records.

“From then on I was keeping an eye out on how she was getting on,” said Roxon, who will compete in her third Paralympic Games this summer in Rio de Janerio. “After hearing she had broken a few records last year I knew she was definitely going places.”

When a 13-year-old Dorris attended the Olympic & Para-swimming Trials in Toronto in April, her parents expected it to be a learning experience.

“We jokingly told Danielle her job was to push the older swimmers to go faster,” said her father J.P., a major in the Canadian Armed Forces. “If she didn’t make the team it wasn’t a show stopper.

Dorris did more than push the veterans – she earned a spot on the team and will be Canada’s youngest Paralympic swimmer ever. The S8 swimmer competes in the 100-m butterfly, 200-m individual medley and 100-m backstroke.

“I was surprised when I found out,” said Dorris, who was born in Fredericton, N.B., and now lives in Moncton. “When it comes closer I will probably be a bit more nervous.”

Right now (I’m) not really (nervous) because I still have more competitions to come.”

Dorris was born with only a portion of her arms, and showed a competitive drive from a young age.

“If anything it has to do with being born with a disability,” said her father. “She can’t say no.

“We raised her to not say ‘I can’t.’ Say ‘I will try.’ We’ve always let her try it first, then we find out if she can do it or not.”

Dorris has a twin sister named Roxanne.

“She got all the arts and singing and drama,” said Dorris. “I got more of the active side with sports and physical things.”

Having a twin helped as the family tended to move around a lot.

“It was difficult because we had to leave our friends a lot,” said Dorris. “We got used to it after the first couple of years.”

Dorris’s introduction to swimming came when she was three years old and living in Moncton. Her father enrolled her in lessons at the local pool.

“We could tell she was good because she was keeping up with her sister,” said J.P.

In the summer of 2008, when Dorris was five, J.P. was transferred to El Paso, Tex. He remembers the reaction of Dorris’s swimming instructor at the time.

“He said ‘oh my God, you are taking away my Paralympian,’” said J.P.

The idea of swimming in the Paralympics stuck in Dorris’s mind. While in Texas she played soccer and ran track, but it wasn’t until the family returned to Ottawa in 2012 that Dorris turned her attention back to swimming again.

“My strongest event is the fly,” she said.

Having a child so young travel to an international sports event like the Paralympics could raise concerns for some parents. J.P. finds comfort that the Para-swim team has several teenagers including Sabrina Duchesne, 15, Tess Routliffe, 17, Samantha Ryan, 16, and Tyler Mrak, 17.

“If she was one of 11 girls and all the other girls were 20, 25, and 26, then I would be a bit more concerned,” he said.

Roxon said the swim team is like a family.

“Speaking for the girls of the team, we are a petty close-knit group,” said the 23-year-old. “Adding someone in who doesn’t have the experience that the rest of us has will just add to the excitement of this summer.

“Being able to pass down my knowledge and experience to her will be exciting. It will be like having a little sister.”

Roxon was 12 years old when she made her first national team. She remembers how Paralympic champion Stephanie Dixon – who was inducted into the Swimming Canada Circle of Excellence this year – took the young Roxon under her wing.

“She made you feel welcomed and part of the team, on top of giving you advice or even just someone to talk to,” said Roxon. “She was a true leader and someone I definitely want to be like, especially heading into these Games.”

For her part, Dorris isn’t bothered by being the youngest member of the team.

“I like it because it gives me an opportunity to see how everyone else swims and gives me more experience,” she said. “I will probably have more times to go to the Paralympics when I’m older.”