"Growing up, my disability was all I ever knew. In hindsight, I see that as a kid it was hard to be different. Now that I teach teenagers, I recognize that everyone has their own insecurities and everyone feels that everyone else is staring at them. For me, it was different because I wore mine. Mine was out there for the world to see. I have pictures of myself as a child pulling my sleeve down over my hand, and gripping it so you couldn’t tell my hand was different. That makes me a bit sad looking back, but it was how I survived and how I felt normal growing up.
In everything I felt different. In PE, I didn’t want to participate at first because I was so afraid of messing up and everyone knowing why. Oddly enough, it’s sport that has given me the most confidence in life.
I was 18 when I first started rowing at the University of Manitoba. I was playing intramurals but wasn’t getting the satistication I used to get from playing competitively, so I started looking for something else. Rowing was not the obvious option for someone with a hand disability, but I decided to go and see what would happen. Part of me thought that I would be told I couldn’t do it, but instead I found a very welcoming community who bent over backwards to make it possible for me, whether it was connecting me with people who help with prosthetics, or exploring the different ways that I could get involved with rowing.
When I first started rowing there was no pararowing. I started rowing in 2000, which was the year leading up to the Canada Summer Games 2001. I happened to fall into the age category to attend, so I was quickly put into the training group for Manitoba and ended up making the eight to represent Manitoba. We earned a bronze medal.
My international career is linked to my experience at the Canada Summer Games. Marnie McBean was the rowing presenter for the medal ceremony, and she shook my right hand, which is where my disability is. She approached me after the medal ceremony and started asking me about my rowing journey. At the time, she was on the Board of Rowing Canada, and the decision to include rowing in the 2008 Paralympics had just been made. She mentioned that there was someone in the country who was also a potential future teammate.
I rowed in my first World Championship in 2006 in the coxed four. It’s cliche, but there aren’t a lot of words to describe what it feels like to represent your country, especially for the first time. It’s just a lot of raw emotion. Placing the sticker of the Canadian maple leaf on the oar is reserved for the World Championships, Paralympics or Olympics. Putting that on was very special. I think I was pretty numb to it all until I got to the startline of my first international race and realized, as I read the name Canada on the back of my teammate in front of me, that I was representing my country and that this was all really happening. I don’t think I breathed for the first 300m of that first race because I was so overwhelmed by that emotion.
Winning wasn’t always the highlight of my rowing career. I have been reflecting on this a lot knowing that this interview was coming, and I realized it’s all the in-between times that stick out the most. Yes, I miss getting out on the water, warming up and grinding out a workout and being so exhausted at the end of the day that I could barely bring my fork to my mouth to feed myself dinner. I do miss that. But the times in between where you have the “ah ha” moments with your own training, or you have a really good practice with your teammates, those are the moments that really stick with me.
In 2013, Shawnigan was looking for a math teacher and a rowing coach, and at that time I wasn’t rowing, so it just worked out. I was immediately put into Kaye’s for duty and I felt like I quickly found a place here.
Shawnigan was a great transition for me as I went from being a full-time athlete to teaching. When you are an athlete, you are “all in.” All I did was eat, sleep and row. I think that this community, a boarding community, is also “all in” and that has helped me transition from being a full time athlete to going back into the working world.
Shawnigan has been amazing to me and has really supported my athletic endeavors. I am very grateful to the School for believing in and supporting me, and for allowing me to step away for a year in my preparation for the Rio Paralympics. I know that it was totally disruptive to the math department! I really appreciated Shawnigan believing in my dream, and my need to finish my career with that last checked box. When I was at the Paralympics, I just was amazed with all the support I received from the students and the staff, and the excitement people had for me. It really meant a lot.
Being at the Paralympics was the first time I felt myself truly relax, as weird as that sounds. It was the first time I realized how much I anticipated the looks from people, knowing they were wondering what had happened. In society, we don’t talk about disability openly. It's not normal, and it's not comfortable. It was the first time I didn’t have to hide.
I am very open about my disability. On the very first day of school each year I speak to my students and the girls in the House about my hand. I make it uncomfortable and point it out and let them know that I was born without a right hand and that it's something I will make fun of, so be prepared if hand jokes come up as I love to make fun. I encourage them to ask questions and to be open about it. Just last week, I had a student ask me, “how do you hold an oar?” I am so glad when people ask questions because it's a great opportunity to educate one another.
I love teaching because we are in the business of helping develop and transform young people into contributing members of society. I hope that I push my students to be more than they ever thought they could be. I hope that they know that when I push or ask for more, it’s because I see more in them. I hope that my presence is educating them on seeing disability.
My favorite part of my job is my students, including the rowers and the girls in Kayes House. The kids are the reason I am here and I enjoy how boarding allows you to have a relationship beyond the classroom or the sportsfield.
I joined Shawnigan’s Diversity Inclusion Belonging committee because I would love to see Shawnigan become more accessible not only for prospective students, but also potential staff and alumni. I think that the committee is a great movement. It’s exactly what we need to help normalize diversity – including people with disabilities. We are educating people here at Shawnigan and this is part of our education.
We are so lucky to live with people from all over the world, who make Shawnigan such a welcoming place. However, there is still work to be done so that we can make this place inclusive to more people. I know we are moving in the right direction."
- Ms. Meghan Montgomery (math teacher, rowing coach, AHD Kayes House)