Amber Thomas – being blind doesn’t mean you lack vision

If you’re looking for inspiration, you don’t need to look any farther than aquatic paralympian Amber Thomas. She is loaded with it and generously supplies it to all who hear her speak.

She was the keynote speaker last week at the seventh annual Special Olympics Celebrity Breakfast in Red Deer. Her story about living with blindness and successfully competing in the pool for Canada internationally drew a standing ovation from the rapt crowd and there were more than a few tears.

She’s only 19 but has competed in two Paralympic Games, in Beijing and London, winning silver and bronze medals at the latter. She’s won a giant display case of medals at other competitions too, from provincial to national to international. Thomas says she’s retired from swimming competitions now, although she still holds 12 Canadian swim records and six American Region records. She’s even broken world paralympic records, like the 400m freestyle at the London Olympics. But she only held the record for about eight minutes, because it was broken again in the next heat. She is seriously considering competing in future Paralympics on horseback, saying, “I only do one competitive sport at a time.” She’s also planning a career in kinesiology and animal massage.

You know none of this could be easy. Life is difficult enough for any of us, but most of us don’t face major setbacks at a young age and triumph over them like Thomas, which is what makes her so inspiring. She lost her sight when she was 10 because of a brain tumour the size of a plum. The tumour was benign and successfully removed surgically, but it had already damaged her optic nerve.

So at that tender age she had to learn to walk again without her eyes. She found it easier to move in the pool and only seven months after her surgery she was back on the hometown Drayton Valley summer swim team where she started to learn how to compete as a blind swimmer. No mean feat in itself, let alone excelling at it.

By 2005 she was winning gold and silver medals at the Alberta Summer Games. By 2007 she was on the Canadian Para national swim team and competing internationally. In Beijing in 2008 she placed seventh and 12th in two events and in London last year she won a silver in the 400m freestyle and a bronze in the 200 individual medley.

She says she is more proud of the bronze than the silver because of the fierce competition.

Thomas has a close companion named Tom, a black lab/golden retriever cross guide dog. Tom goes with her almost everywhere, and was with her on the podium as she spoke last week. He helps her find her way around pool decks and new places and you can tell they are very dependent on each other. Her love of animals, be they canine or equine, helped her choose a career and she says she would never want a desk job.

The accolades for Thomas just keep coming. For the last five years she’s been selected as the Swim Alberta Top Para Female and she recently was awarded the 2012 Alberta top female junior athlete by the Alberta Sport, Recreation, Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

“You can do anything you set your mind to,” she said at the breakfast, “Choose something you like and are good at,” when you are setting your goals. She has the vision to succeed in life as well as sports. One can only imagine the endless hours she has spent in swimming pools to get where she is. She should be a solid gold inspiration for the rest of us as we ramble through life without her determination and drive to overcome whatever obstacles life gives us.

As one sports commentator said about Amber Thomas, “Just because she’s blind doesn’t mean she lacks vision.”

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