With her competitive swimming career in the rear-view mirror, Andrea Cole is hopeful her story can serve as inspiration to the next generation of athletes.
Cole, the former Paralympic gold medal winning swimmer, is set to be enshrined into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame at their induction ceremony on Saturday at the Valhalla Inn.
In an interview Tuesday evening, Cole, who suffers from cerebral palsy, recounted how much her athletic career impacted her life.
“I know for me, sport changed my life and made me the person I am today,” Cole said, who is a Grade 7/8 teacher in the Nakina area.
“I think my story is special because I overcame a lot to get to where I was, I sacrificed a lot and I never gave up. It’s just wonderful to think children will be able to see that story and I’m still alive today, so it’s really cool to think children to see it and people will know what I’ve done.”
She is a three-time Paralympic medalist, and became the first female from the region to win Paralympic gold when she accomplished the feat as a member of the world-record 4x100m freestyle relay squad at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Her swimming career helped give her a sense of belonging that she had been searching for prior to her taking up the sport.
Despite all of her accomplishments, which includes being named the 2004 Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Female Athlete of the Year, it is a team spirit award from her days with the Thunderbolts swim club that is one of her greatest sources of pride. She explains it is because it meant she was a valued component of the program.
She said that being a part of the historic relay team in Sydney, and being so young at the time surrounded by such a group of strong athletes gave her unprecedented comfort, and meant she was able to approach the event without pressure.
“It was just such a special time, and I felt such an incredible sense of inclusion that I had never really felt before,” she said.
“The nice thing about being 16 is you don’t really think what you dream is going to come true so you don’t worry about it. I was in a really good place.
"I wasn’t nervous. Everyone just wanted me to do my best. There’s something special about when you have a world record holder going ahead of you and getting out of the water saying you can do it, and then having a world record holder going after you and telling you to go for it.”
She also won silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay in 2004 in Athens, as well as a bronze in the 100m butterfly.
Cole returned to Thunder Bay following her retirement from competitive swimming after the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, and was accepted into the professional teaching course at Lakehead University.
Prior to moving out of town to pursue her teaching career, Cole served as the swim coach for the city’s Special Olympics program. She takes great pride in serving as a mentor to youth.
“It’s always been important for me to give back. That’s why I’ve spent so much time teaching and coaching, and certainly something that I’ll always want to do,” she said.
“I think the key to succeeding as a teacher or a coach is the attitude you instill in the students you’re teaching or the athletes you’re coaching.”
Cole will be one of three athletes being inducted in the hall. Joining her are a pair of hockey players, 2006 Olympic gold medalist Katie Weatherston and 1999 Stanley Cup champion Tony Hrkac. Local fixtures Brian Mallon and Brian McLean are being inducted as builders, and the 1991 Canadian Open rowing team of Jim Cameron, Janice Cameron and Charlie Spence will also be enshrined.
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