Tammy Cunnington – Alberta’s Tokyo 2021 Para Homegrown Hero

Megan Narsing News

Tammy Cunnington from Red Deer, Alberta will be attending her second Paralympic Games, August 24 – September 5 2021 in Tokyo. Tammy previously competed at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in four events. In Tokyo, she will be competing in three events: 150m IM – SM4, 50m Breast – SB3, and 50m Back – S4.

Swim Alberta was able to catch Tammy before she headed off to Vancouver for Team Canada’s staging camp. Here is her story on her road to Tokyo!

Congratulations Tammy on making it onto your second Paralympic Swim Team!

Thank you!

Getting onto the team twice is no small feat so I wanted to get to know more about your journey to this point in your sporting career. When did you start swimming?

I actually started swimming for triathlon purposes. In 2002-2003, I was training at a gym and they put up a poster for a club to do their first ever para-triathlon. I hadn’t swum since I was a kid and so I started swimming for that. [I] literally started with half a length at a time to get back into it and I only swam backstroke at that time.

Then triathlons progressed and continued until the point where it was put into what I was doing which was sprint distance, then Olympic distance, and then half Ironman distance, and then the sprint distance was being put in for triathlon in Rio. Then at the last minute, well not quite the last but late, late in 2014, they pulled my classification because they determined there weren’t enough people worldwide for depth of field.

I already had a swim coach, Mandi (Smith), who is still my coach now. She said, “well, let’s go to one meet and see what happens.” So, in December of 2014 I went to Can-Ams in Edmonton and did really well and progressed from there. In April (2015) I made the Pan-Ams and World Championship Teams and then the following year made Rio (2016). I just wasn’t quite ready to pack it in, so I wanted to give it a try for Tokyo.

What made you want to push yourself to top athlete level?

Tammy competing in open water. Photo provided by Tammy Cunnington.

I competed in elite levels in wheelchair basketball when I was much younger. I have two sporting lives, so when I was a kid I competed in junior and senior national teams and I retired just before the Atlanta Olympics and Paralympics (1996). I kind of always thought that was my last chance to go to a games and for multiple reasons. I retired at that point before going to a Paralympics. When the opportunity came up in para triathlon – I’d been one of the grassroots para triathletes in Alberta. Most of the towns that were hosting had never had a wheelchair person compete in a triathlon – I was kind of grassroots in that, and I thought: why don’t we take this further and try to go to Rio and fulfill the dream I had as a kid. Just in a different way than I expected!

 

Tell me more about your other sporting life, basketball.

That [Basketball] was my main sport. I was injured when I was six and then by the time I was nine or so I started to play wheelchair basketball. At the time it was the easiest because we played in our regular chairs, we didn’t need lots of equipment, so it wasn’t expensive it was just going to Edmonton for practice and things like that. It was a good sport for me and my family to be involved in and it grew from there.

Tammy in hospital. Photo provided by Tammy Cunnington

May I ask you about your accident?

Yes, I was injured at an airshow in Ponoka and a plane – just at a little tiny airport – a plane tried to land, and he got caught in the wind and crashed and then crashed into me. My brother had his leg broken but it was just the two of us (that were injured).

Was that the most difficult time of your life?

Because I was so young and even at the time, I was pretty flexible and adaptable. I had a fighting spirit and was sassy and sarcastic, I think that kind of helped me through. I can’t remember. I’m not saying it was ever easy but I also don’t remember it being just this one moment ‘Oh, you’ll never walk again’ and it being major and traumatic that way. It was just lots of recovery. I was in the hospital for almost a full year, I think, before I came home.

Things like that were of course challenging but I think honestly competing at an elite level was almost harder. The training and the effort I put into making the team for Rio and Tokyo was probably more because [of] being an adult and being less adaptable. I think when we are little kids we are more adaptable.

How has training differed between Rio and Tokyo for you?

Everybody’s training was so different this year because of Covid so there was a lot more dry land training for me and a lot less time in the pool. In some ways it was positive because we learned I can actually swim just as well or better with less time in the water. So even when I did get back in the water, we kept my workouts a little bit shorter. One less swim a week and more time on my hand cycle doing low heart rate base building and a little more time in the weight room.
So, my recovery became also – because I’m getting older, I hate saying that! – but my recovery became more important this year as well. We had a chance to see what I could do with better recovery whereas prior I didn’t always feel I had time to take the recovery time.
I think that just as much as people approach being over busy, athletes are more prone to over training then under training and it’s really, really hard to see that until you’re forced to.

How are you feeling going into Tokyo right now?

For me this time around the focus mostly is to feel good, I’m in good shape – but the podium is not likely a possibility for me. I’m just not quite in the timeslot I need to be. But, I really want to make it just a really positive experience and celebrate the full journey of me being injured at 6 years old and going through everything then till all of these years later competing at the highest level. I’m not so much focusing on placing. I really hope to go get best times and everything, but I also really want to go and have a positive experience with the team, be a good leader on the team and role model, and just look at more parts of it then times on the clock.
You can only control what we can do and you never know who is going to be there and who is going to swim well on the day that they swim. I’m just doing all the things that I know how to do well and have a good experience and ignore the rest.

Who are the people you are most grateful to in your swimming journey?

My coach Mandi was a huge, huge part of it. When I met her, I was only swimming backstroke and she basically took me from not knowing how to swim free, or breast or butterfly to the Paralympic Games with her coaching skills; so, she was a huge part of that. My family – they never let me sit around when I was a kid and be dependant, they made me independent and got me involved in sports because they are really sporty. If they had just let me sit around and do nothing it would have been not the positive life that I have had. And then my husband! He and I have been very connected and close and he’s always a big support in this journey.

Tammy Cunnington wins bronze in the women’s 100 freestyle during the 2015 Parapan Am Games . Photo Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee

What was your biggest accomplishment in swimming?

Rio was hard for me because I got pneumonia and didn’t do as well as I wanted to, but I broke the world record for S4 Butterfly in 2015 and then I broke it twice in trials in 2016. I didn’t break that record again at the games because I had to swim it up against the S5’s because the S4’s don’t typically race butterfly but I did get a Paralympic Record in as an S4 even though I was against the S5’s.

What is a fun fact about yourself outside of swimming?

I love to cook and bake. I make all kinds of super fancy things and I make my own bread and all that kind of stuff. That is my big passion outside of the pool.

What is your signature recipe?

Either sourdough bread or cheesecake! (Specifically) A Nutella Cheesecake that everyone loves.

What is your advice to Para Swimmers in Alberta?

I guess it’s kind of cliché but to just believe in yourself and know that there really aren’t any dreams that are too big. If you really want to go for something, then go for it and don’t let other people hold you back or discourage you. And then at times also it goes the other way too, not everybody enjoys the big stage or the big competition. So, if you love to do something just because you love it, even if you are not the best at it or the fastest at it, you can still just embrace it because you love it.

 


In addition to setting three world records in butterfly, Tammy has bettered more than 20 Canadian para swimming records. She is the current national record holder in the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 50m breaststroke and 50m butterfly. Tammy has improved the Canadian record in the 50m butterfly by almost 10 seconds.