By Jim Morris
The not knowing was the worst part for Abi Tripp.
The Para-swimmer from Kingston, Ont., has dealt with cerebral palsy all her life. Not long after competing at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games she noticed some differences in her right arm, including spasms.
“It was definitely not normal, my normal,” said Tripp, who will represent Canada at the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia, Aug. 9-13.
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 updates on Twitter throughout the meet.
“With the CP I could control it even if my arm was tired. In this situation it would go a chicken wing type of thing. I would lose power in my arm if I was swimming.”
The 17-year-old saw specialists and underwent a battery of tests before being diagnosed with a form of dystonia. The disorder, which affects about one out of every six CP cases, causes unwanted movement and spasms of the muscles.
Once Tripp knew what the problem was she could begin learning how to deal with the condition. “I was personally really happy to have something to call it,” she said. “It’s just who I am now. We’re figuring out ways to be able to perform and still get the best out of me, even though we have this little extra challenge.”
Vicki Keith, who coaches Tripp at the Kingston Y Penguins Aquatic Club, said the first challenge was adapting Tripp’s training regime since the dystonia made her more susceptible to injury. “With the diagnosis came the doctor’s explanation of what we needed to do to protect her, so she doesn’t injure herself,” said Keith. “We have to look at things and adjust things to be sure she is getting everything she needs.”
For Tripp, less suddenly became more when it came to training. “She’s having to relearn how to train,” said Keith. “She is the kind of athlete that loves to work hard all the time. Not only does she want to work hard, she wants to do it technically perfect. What we’ve had to do is really go back and cut back the distance she is swimming and just work specifically on technique. We’re trying to make up for her not being able to do so much distance with as much technical correction as we can.”
No two training days are alike for Tripp.
“Pretty much every day is different,” she said. “I don’t know what my arm is going to be like when I show up at the pool. We have to be really be attentive to how my arm is feeling if we don’t want to have injuries on top of it.”
At the Rio Paralympics Tripp made the final in the 100-metre freestyle, the 400-m free and 200-metre individual medley, setting Canadian records in the last two events. She also finished 10th in the 50-m freestyle and 100-m backstroke.
Tripp has dropped training for the 400-m free and concentrates more on the sprint events.v“That’s what I really love so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything,” she said.
The new training regime seems to be paying dividends. Tripp won a bronze medal in the S8 50-m freestyle at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
That event was Tripp’s first major international meet since the diagnosis. “We had a little bit of an issue with it at the beginning of staging (camp),” said Vince Mikuska, Swimming Canada’s senior coach for the Paralympic program. “The further we got into the process the less it became an issue. At the end there was no problem at all.”
At the recent Canadian Swimming Trials Tripp swam a personal best time in the 100-m breaststroke.
Flexibility is one of the keys.
“Every day is a new day,” said Mikuska. “You have to have plan A and plan B in place. You just deal with whatever is there on the day.”
Tripp is also developing a better understanding of the signals her body is sending. “Over time I’ve kind of been able to peg the things down that makes my arm the most fatigued and what makes it feel best,” she said. “I find if I get super stressed my arm will completely spasm. I have to be very careful how I handle things.”
Outside the pool Tripp relies on dry needling, acupuncture and massages. She’s also found meditation a useful tool. “It’s made a huge difference,” said Tripp. “It helped me perform better in the pool but also outside the pool in school. I’m always very focused on staying relaxed. I do some meditation every day just to try and keep my body at a stress level that’s not too high.”
Tripp is excited about representing Canada in Australia and believes the dystonia diagnosis has given her a renewed attitude.
“I’ve grown mentally,” she said. “Physically I’ve become stronger. I’ve learned so much from having this challenge. I can handle more pressure.”