By Jim Morris
Just when Danielle Kisser stepped up to the plate again she got knocked down by another curveball.
This winter Kisser, who was born with achondroplasia dwarfism, finally looked like she had turned the corner recovering from her 2014 operation to straighten her legs. She had moved to Montreal to train at the High Performance Centre – Quebec and was recording some of her best times in years.
Then fate decided to test the 21-year-old’s resiliency one more time.
Kisser suffered two concussions in three months, creating another large bump in her road back to the Para-swimming national team. “It has taught me a lot of perseverance and I realize how competitive I am to come back. I have a lot of confidence in myself,” said Kisser, who is part of the 18-member Canadian team that will compete at the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships Aug. 9-13 at Cairns, Australia.
Each pool session will be live streamed on the Swimming Australia Website, Swimming Australia YouTube page and the Australian Dolphins Facebook page. Swimming Canada will also have live updates on Twitter throughout the meet.
Mike Thompson, head coach at the Quebec centre, shakes his head when talking about the “difficulties and challenges” Kisser has faced over the last four years. “She is the most resilient person that I have ever worked with,” said Thompson. “If there is ever any example of somebody who has had it rough it’s got to be Dee.”
Kisser holds four Canadian records in the S6 category. As a 14-year-old she won a bronze medal in the 100-metre breaststroke at the 2011 Guadalajara Parapan Am Games. The next year she missed qualifying for the London 2012 Paralympics by less than a second in the 100-m breast.
In the fall of 2014 Kisser underwent a double-leg osteotomy. Like many dwarfs, her legs were beginning to turn out and she was experiencing knee pain.
During the procedure Kisser’s tibia and fibulas were broken, screws installed, and her ankles were rotated to realign with her knee. The surgery was done in October at BC Children’s Hospital and Kisser was in a wheelchair until January. “Just learning how to walk was its own challenge,” Kisser said.
Her recovery prevented Kisser from qualifying for the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games. She attended the trials for the Rio 2016 Paralympics but failed to make the team. Kisser describes this period of her life as “quite frustrating” and “really hard.”
“Swimming was everything I did,” said the Delta, B.C., native. “It took a lot of time to accept that I’m not going to be on the team and find other things I could succeed in while continuing to train. I had to remember why I enjoyed it. Not just for the success but the atmosphere, the training, the team, the friends. That helped me.”
In September 2016 Kisser made the decision to move to Montreal and train with Thompson. Being in the water with other Para-swimmers and taking advantage of the centre’s resources was the first step on the road back to the national team. “Getting to train with my fellow national team members is something that is really cool,” said Kisser. “We are all training for the same thing. It’s nice to come to the pool every day and everyone wants to be there.”
Kisser rooms with Tess Routliffe, a fellow dwarf and silver medallist in Rio. “We are both kind of figuring it out together,” said Kisser. “We get to walk through the same stuff at the same time so it’s nice to have somebody to lean on.”
One of the first things Thompson did when Kisser joined his program was change her stroke and breathing patterns. “There was a lot of work to be done,” he said. “She missed almost two years.”
Kisser looked to be back in the fast lane when she attended a training camp in Trinidad this winter. While there she picked up a virus then, upon her return home, slipped on some ice coming out of her apartment and banged her head on the sidewalk. “It was pretty nasty,” said Kisser, who was forced out of the water for three months.
Healthy again, Kisser got back in the pool only to slip in the change room and smash her head again. That cost her another week of training.
Faith and friendship helped her deal with the situation. “I have a great group of people in Montreal,” she said. “I’m connected to a real cool church. A lot of people helped me a lot. When I couldn’t do anything they were there to be supportive and remind me it’s OK to slow down. Learning how to stop and take a break and let my body heal was something that was a challenge. “
Thompson is pleased Kisser is back on the national team but said that’s only a step on the journey. “We’re not done yet,” he said. “I think next year is going to be more challenging and certainly 2020 is probably going to be the most challenging thing that she’s ever going to have to do. I think it’s reinforcement and encouraging to say we are on the right track. She probably feels a lot more confident than she has in the past.”
After being knocked down so many times Kisser is happy to be standing again, waiting for the next pitch. “It feels really good,” she said. “It’s been a really long four years. It’s really exciting to be swimming fast again.”