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Stage event PUSHes Parapan athletes’ stories

By Will Sloan

Jenna Lambert

Athlete Jenna Lambert discussed swimming Lake Ontario at a rehearsal of PUSH! at the Disability Studies Summer Institute.

Not many of us would muster the energy to swim across Lake Ontario, and even fewer would do it without the use of their legs. One person who did was Jenna Lambert, who at age 15 became the first woman with a disability to swim across Lake Ontario… using only her arms due to cerebral palsy.

Lambert is one of six athletes sharing her story in PUSH! Real Athletes. Real Stories. Real Theatre, a Tangled Art + Disability theatrical production commissioned by the TORONTO 2015 Pan AM/Parapan Am Games arts and culture festival, PANAMANIA. Produced with the support of Ryerson University, the production traces the history of the Paralympics from 1944 to today through the personal stories of the athletes’ triumphs and challenges.

“When I first started competing, I was very timid, and I went into a sport that was dominated by the able-bodied,” said Lambert. “I always thought I was going to be in the way or too slow, and because I’m not a competitive person at heart, that’s the posture I took when I went on the pool deck.”

Now 24, her achievements include a 50-hour ultra-triathlon in 2009 (the first person with a disability to complete this event) and representing Canada in the 2011 Guadalajara Parapan Am Games. “To those aspiring to make the Parapan Am games, I would just say: go out to your domain with confidence and do your very best. Give 120, 130 per cent every single time and don’t hold anything back.”

PUSH! was written by the acclaimed theatre artists Ping Chong and Sara Zatz, specialists in chronicling the experiences of marginalized groups through their Undesirable Elements theatre series. Chong and Zatz create the scripts through extensive interviews with the participating athletes, to be performed by the athletes themselves.

PUSH! will also provide an educational opportunity for Ryerson: students from the School of Disability Studies attended a rehearsal on campus and were able to meet and ask questions of the show’s artists and athletes. They will write essays and hold class discussions about the experience. “Students are very impressed that this is from the athletes’ own voices,” said Melanie Panitch, professor and founding director of the school. “It’s not people talking about people with disabilities – it’s people speaking their own stories in their own voice.”

“Disability stories are not always told accurately, and actors in movies and television may not actually have disabilities,” said Katz. “For people who are coming from a disability perspective, it actually offers an opportunity to see people on stage who represent their own stories in a way you don’t get often in everyday media.”

Chong noted that the performances are also meant to lead to greater empathy and understanding from the able-bodied. “People hopefully will be both inspired but also motivated to work towards more equality, and to overcome the discrimination that’s still out there.

“Everyone has experience with disability, whether it’s your parents, grandparents, brother, uncle – disability will always be in everybody’s life in some way, but the connection of disability with their lives is always there. They don’t always recognize that it isn’t just their lives – it’s our lives.”

It’s these athletes’ stories that will be the big draw for theatregoers. “All the athletes taking part in this are incredible,” said Lambert. “They have remarkable stories, they’ve been remarkable places, and they’re going remarkable places. They all have experiences that are different than mine.

“I hope [the audience] will see that we are just like any able-bodied athlete that trains hard, works hard, and puts 100 per cent into our lives and our sport. To associate this with disability is kinda funny, because though we all have our own disability, we also have, in some sense, no disability. We’re all just out there giving it our all.”

PUSH! runs August 11-14 at the Young Centre for the Performing arts. For tickets, go to