By Minal Abhange
Liam O’Brien can hardly be described as a fish out of water.
In fact, the Office Administration student considers swimming a passion that defines him.
Liam, 20, a native of Port aux Basques, started swimming as a preschooler and has been a part of the Piranha Swim team in his home town for eight years.
“I enjoy other sports and dance; however swimming has always been my passion.”
Liam’s mother, Joann, shares how Liam got his shot at the World Swimming Championship, an event organized by the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization (DSISO) that featured more than 200 swimmers from 24 countries.
“We were at a swimming event in St. John’s last year, when we first heard about the World Down Syndrome Swimming Championship. This was first time the event was hosted in Canada and Liam was excited to join. We followed all the registration procedures and Liam completed the qualifying time requirements to compete.”
Liam participated in eight individual swims and his very first team relay race this past July in Truro, N.S., including 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 50m backstroke, 100m backstroke, 100m individual medley, 50m butterfly, and 50m breaststroke.
Bursting with pride over his accomplishments at the ninth World Down Syndrome Swimming Championship, Liam says he won four heat medals; a silver medal in the 50m backstroke, 50m freestyle and 100m freestyle, and a gold medal in the 50m butterfly race.
“It was the first time Canada hosted the event. I had a lot of fun and it was an awesome experience to win four heat medals.”
The competition is a unique opportunity for athletes with Down syndrome to compete on the world stage against swimmers with similar challenges. (Down syndrome can include both mental and physical exceptionalities).
Joann says, “Liam met a lot of new friends, and it was bustling with athletes and their families from around the world.”
One of Liam’s professional swimmer idols is Katarina Roxon, a Paralympic swimmer from Kippens who has won numerous medals on the world stage.
A very special moment
Liam was one of the 24 swimmers representing Canada at the championships, and the only competitor from Port Aux Basques, joining fellow Newfoundlanders Josh Harper and Tyler Robinson.
“I am very proud,” Liam says, “I feel great because I swam with my friends on Team Canada.”
His mother says it was a great display of talent from around the world.
“Liam just did amazing. We’re very proud of him. As a parent, it was a nice way to connect with other parents of children with Down syndrome and know that they all share common goals for their kids.
“I think these games give participants an opportunity to compete on a world stage. They have all overcome significant physical and intellectual challenges. They have trained as hard as any athlete in any sport for any world championship, and they’re here to celebrate that and try to do their best.”
The Canadian team placed fifth overall in the competition. Liam says he had such a wonderful experience that he is looking forward to competing in 2020 when the championships are held in Turkey.
The swimming championships not only give participants an incredible time in the pool, it also helps athletes learn life skills and work toward independence by having them follow meal plans, training routines and regularly interacting with coaches and teammates.
“Special Championships have created a wonderful opportunity to practice so many skills all at once,” says Joann.
Apart from being a passionate swimmer, Liam worked very hard, with the support of amazing teachers, to achieve a high school general diploma from St. James Regional High in Port aux Basques.
After graduating from high school, Liam says he wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and learn business-related skillsets. This is what brought him to CNA, where he is learning skills for everyday life, and for the workplace, from his instructors in the Office Administration program.
Throughout his time at CNA, Liam has been an inspiration to all, sharing love and happiness with his witty word play, bellowing songs at random and grand dance moves throughout the campus hallways.
“The opportunity to attend CNA has been one of the biggest life milestones for Liam,” Joann says. “A major part of Liam’s success in life has been thanks to the inclusive community at CNA and in Port aux Basques. This experience has paved an incredible achievement, equipped with employable skills.”
Liam agrees and said some of his favourite events at the campus were the haunted house and student orientation.
Among his other accolades, Liam received an Inspiration Award in 2016 presented by the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. He also had the honour of being a torchbearer for the Special Olympics as the torch made its way to Corner Brook for the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in 2016.
His many talents don’t stop there. Liam is also part of an informal family and friends band with his father. He plays the bodhran, tambourine, spoons and cajón, and is very happy to point out that he manages the band, organizing show dates and preparing song lists.
His future plans are to return to CNA or seek employment – whichever comes first.
To find out more about the programs offered at CNA, visit: www.cna.nl.ca.