While most of the country sat back and watched the exploits of Canadian athletes competing in the Atlanta Olympic Games, Marie Claire Ross of London, Ontario had training on her mind.

The competitive swimmer is one of a host disabled athletes who took part in the Paralympic Games August 15-26 in Atlanta. From modest beginnings, the Paralympics have emerged to provide a competitive outlet for disabled athletes around the world. While they don’t rival the regular Olympics, these games generate their own excitement and challenge for competitors, their coaches and families.

Marie Clair, 20, had only 10 per cent vision and is considered legally blind. It’s a genetic condition that left her with deteriorating eyesight since the age of eight. She has some vision but has difficulty with finer details. Younger sister Jessie, 17, also a Paralympic swimmer, is similarly disabled.

Like their fellow Paralympians, however, Marie Claire and Jessie don’t expect special treatment. In fact, they have come to excel in a sport that demands discipline, commitment and perseverance.

“A lot of people seem uncomfortable with the disabled” Marie Claire told The Interim. “I think it stems from the fact that they don’t know what disabled people re capable of.”

Marie Claire took up competitive swimming as a teenager at Catholic Central High School in London. She quickly established her superiority and went on to win several national and international competitions. She captured a silver and three bronze medals at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Two years later, she won one gold, one silver and seven bronze medals at the International Paralympic world swimming championships in Malta.
Her strongest events are the 100 and 200-metre breast stroke and the 200-metre individual medley. While her success in the pool may been a gift to some, it hasn’t come about without hard work. Marie Claire spends up to five hours a day in training. She must also compete in regional, provincial and national competitors before earning one of only 13 spots on the Canadian Paralympic swim team.

Marie Claire was entered in seven events at this year’s games in Atlanta. She spent the weeks preceding the gamed training in Vancouver. This was followed by a trip to Gainesville, Florida, where swim team members acclimatized themselves to Atlanta weather conditions.

As important as swimming is to Marie Claire, she is also committed to the pro-life cause. She has been active with Ontario Students for Life for four years, and in 1992, she was one of the planners of a province-wide student pro-life conference. Two years later, Marie Claire helped organize the student Skate-for-life on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. Her older sister, Kathleen, is outgoing president of Ontario Students for Life.

When not in training for international competitors, Marie Claire swims with the varsity team at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto. September marks the beginning of her third-year nutrition studies and Ryerson.

As a disabled athlete, Marie Claire has a unique perspective on pro-life, pro-family issues. While she doesn’t make it a point to discuss the pro-life cause with her fellow athletes, she notes how the disabled are happy to use their gifts to compete or just to live out their lives.

“The disabled athletes that I’ve met are just happy to be alive,” she said. “They don’t want others making decisions for them about their quality of life. They are satisfied with their abilities and they make the most of them to compete and have a good time.”