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Kisser takes long road to first Paralympic Games

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It has been a long and winding road to the Paralympic Games for Danielle Kisser.

A member of the Parapan American Games team in 2011 at age 14, the Delta, B.C. native missed out on a number of major international competitions over the following years – including Toronto 2015, Rio 2016 and a pair of world championships – due to surgery, numerous injuries and other circumstances that were often out of her control.

Now, at 24, Kisser has finally fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a Paralympian. She will be one of 19 Canadian swimmers in action from Aug. 25 to Sept. 3 at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

“I’m still wrapping my head around it. It still feels surreal,” says Kisser, who is set to compete in the 100-m breaststroke SB6 on Aug. 28. “It still makes me cry when I think about it because this is something I’ve wanted for 13 years, since I started swimming.”

Until a few weeks ago, it looked like Kisser would be watching yet another big event from the sidelines.

Originally left off the Tokyo squad, she was added to the team in late July when Rio silver medallist Tess Routliffe, one of her teammates at the High Performance Centre – Quebec in Montreal, was forced to withdraw due to an injury. Routliffe being one of her closest friends, it made the announcement of her selection bittersweet for Kisser.

“You never want these things to happen, especially when it’s one of your best friends. We spend every day together, we talk every day. It’s just really sad.”

Mike Thompson, who coaches both swimmers at HPC-Quebec, says a conversation between the two friends helped Kisser “feel it was ok to feel happy about her selection”.

“When Tess made the decision that she couldn’t go, she sat down with Dee and told her something to the effect of ‘Look, I’m not going to go. This is yours, but I expect that you’re going to take this seriously and you’re going to go do something with it’. And Dee said ‘Yes, absolutely. I’m going to honour that’.”

Kisser made headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, as she documented on her YouTube channel how she built her own pool in her backyard back in B.C. so she could continue training. She was named the inaugural winner of the People’s Choice Award for Most Viral Moment of the Year at the 2020 Canadian Sport Awards.

Her training during the pandemic was going so well, in fact, it made it even harder when she didn’t make the first cut for Tokyo.

“This whole pandemic year was one of the best training years I’ve had, with the uninterrupted training and the lack of travelling. My training was going really well,” says the Concordia University student, who is doing a double major in linguistics and theology. “And then, the cancellation of the Trials was not very beneficial for me in terms of my performances, and it started throwing things off.”

Thompson was also really upset for his pupil when she didn’t make the standard for the team “when it really, really looked like it was going to happen”.

“My first thought when it looked like Tess would not be able to go was can we put Dee on the team. She didn’t make the standard but she was the closest next person.

“So I called her right away and I said ‘You may have an opportunity here. It’s an opportunity for you to come back and finish the season with purpose. Whether you’re chosen or not is not within your control. What is in your control is to prepare as if you’re a bench player in the playoffs, and one of your teammates has gone down. Are you going to be able to jump in to finish the game?’ That’s how I framed it to her.”

Thompson and Kisser agree resilient is a good word to describe her journey to the Paralympic Games.

“She’d had a lot of bumps on her road,” says Thompson, who will be alongside his charge in Tokyo as a member of the Canadian coaching staff. “She’s really developed as a person because of all the adversity that she’s been through, and I think that adversity has helped her become who she is today. She gets the reward that she’s been waiting for all these years.”

Adds Kisser, “I would say (resilient) is a good word. When I look at my career on paper, it’s not glamorous, it’s not all fun, it’s not something that makes people go ‘Wow! That’s incredible!’ There has been setback after setback. Random injury here, random injury there. Not making it, almost making it. Just a lot of obstacles that have been thrown at me over the last seven years. To be honest, I don’t know how I’m still swimming, but I know that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m here for a reason.”

Both also agree that no matter what happens in the pool on Aug. 28, Kisser’s Paralympic debut should be considered a success.

“I don’t think we can measure success on results with her,” says Thompson. “It’s an opportunity to stand on the world stage and be the activist she wants to be for the sport and Para athletes, and to be part of the Paralympic Movement. Of course, she would love to do it through performance, I’d love to see her make a final. But she’s weathered all these storms, and just the fact she stuck to it and she’s still here is a success.”

“I think racing in Tokyo and racing for my country is going to be so much fun because there’s no pressure,” says Kisser. “A month ago, I wasn’t on the team. And two months ago, the door was completely shut. Then this door kind of opened and now I’m here. I’m just really excited to be here and be with Team Canada.”

Kisser adds there’s one more reason why she’s happy her Paralympic debut will be at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games.

“These Games, if anything, they’re going to represent people’s resilience, people who mentally held it together, people who were able to overcome a lot more than just their own physical differences but also the pandemic, dealing with shutdowns, everything that has happened. The people who are here are people who showed a different type of strength, and so I think it’s going to be very cool just to see that being showcased at these Games. I’m grateful I get to be a little part of that.”