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‘A piece of me I thought I had lost forever’: Victorian rows closer to Paralympics

Christa Akins was paraylzed when struck by an SUV in Kelowna in 2017; now raising money for Paralymic qualifing
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Christa Akins has eyes on becoming a Paralympian and is raising money to compete in the Paralympic Qualifications in Switzerland from May 19-21. (Courtesy Christa Akins)

Once an avid athlete, Christa Akins was left paralyzed and wheelchair-bound after being struck by an SUV in 2017, changing her life forever. But her life forever changed again in 2019 when she went to the Canadian Paralympian Search and discovered the world of Paralympics.

Now, three years later, Akins is fundraising to compete in the Paralympic Qualifications in Switzerland. The hope is to secure a spot for Canada at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris after being the chosen Canadian nominated in April to compete.

Just over two weeks into the GoFundMe campaign, which closes May 22, Akins is just under $6,000 shy of reaching her $14,000 to help cover the costs.

“What I love about rowing is that my own strength turns into speed. I find that very exhilarating,” she said.

No Canadian has competed in the 2,000 metre Paralympic rowing race, since the length changed from 1,000 metres to 2,000 in 2017.

Eight countries will compete at the qualifications, including Sweden, Denmark and Argentina, and only the gold medalist will go on to Paris for the August Paralympics.

“It’s going to be the hardest race I’ve ever done in my life because I’m up against very seasoned rowers,” Akins said.

But Lisa Tschannen, manager of education, innovation and inclusion at Rowing British Columbia said Akins’ determination, persistence and passion make her “formidable as a racer.”

The very idea of Akins becoming a Paralympian is thanks to a glimmer of hope when the Canadian Paralympian Search came to Kelowna in November 2019.

“Peer-pressured” by her supportive friends into going, Akins was still in physical rehab at the time and found the whole thing “intimidating.”

“You can imagine mentally I was far away from sports but at the same time, I had always been an athlete all my life. I was in ballet when I was three years old and I was in gymnastics, into cycling, I did the Conquer Cancer Ride [Ride to Conquer Cancer],” she said. “It was a piece of me that I thought I had lost forever, so it was really hard to watch other people do sports at a high level.”

When Akins was struck by an SUV on July 5, 2017, she was cycling home at the time.

“I got to try different sports and a sports psychologist there said to me, ‘Here are 11 sports I think you could qualify for. Your job is to try them all out and find your passion because it’s passion that will get you through the rough spots.’ And was she ever right,” she added. “It really opened my horizons and changed my life.”

Akins chose basketball and tennis until March 2020, when COVID-19 shut down indoor activities.

“I struggled with everything being stripped away from me again after I had finally found my way again. So I started rowing when everything opened up.” she said. “I was focusing on the things that I can do, and that was a huge life lesson for me.”

Since then, rowing has been Akins’ passion.

“It was a lot more difficult than I thought and I looked terrible but I remember once I got the hang of moving the boat in the right direction, there was that one stroke that lifted the boat. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I did that’ and I’ve been chasing that perfect stroke ever since.” she said. “With every stroke, I feel like all my worries and all my anxieties just fall away. It’s mystical when you’re in the fog and you see the sunrise and it’s like you get a second chance every day the sun comes up. You leave the wheelchair behind.”

Akins was living in Kelowna but said she felt “imprisoned” when snow would take away her ability to be active. After being encouraged by her coach at the time, Martin George, to consider training with the national team in January 2022, she found her calling.

“In Victoria, I can handcycle, I can cross-train, and I love the team, the other Paralympian athletes. I just love that energy of being around other people who have goals and are ambitious. That’s who I am. So January 5 (2022), I packed my stuff. I filled up my van and I moved into a hotel.”

What was meant to be a season turned into two years away from her husband, who still lives in Kelowna. Akins beat the Canadian time standard and won the gold medal at the National Championships and the Lagoa Rio Trophy for outstanding performance.

While training in Victoria, she calls the Kensington Retirement Residence home.

“It’s totally accessible. They wash my floors, clean my bathrooms, which I struggle with, make my bed and provide me nutritious meals, which frees me up to focus on my training,” she said. “The community here has been my absolute support system. They’ve been cheering me on.”

Also cheering her on are the supporters who have quickly rallied to collectively donate thousands of dollars.

Before becoming paralyzed, Akins was an avid runner, skier and cyclist who completed the Ride to Conquer Cancer from Vancouver to Seattle and was also a founder of P.E.A.C.E. in Mind, a society supporting families raising children with mental health and eating disorders.

“I’ve lost so much, my ability to walk, my health, and my children moved out [after graduation]. It was a really, really, really rough time,” Akins said. “Now I was the one that needed help and I’ve never been in this situation. That was really hard for Miss Independent over here.”

“So how do I feel when I saw those numbers go up so quickly? I was deeply touched, very grateful. I’ve got amazing friends, an amazing community.”

As a PR1 rower, Akins races with pontoons. She has a fixed seat and a backrest which she is strapped to along with straps around her legs, hips and chest. The GoFundMe is partly to help pay for her coach, integral to her training and helping her get into the boat.

She also credits the Vernon Rowing and Dragon Boat Club and their Para Rowing Program where she started, plus her past coach Martin George, and coaches Leanne Savage and Alec Stapff.

“Leanne could no longer coach me for personal reasons. Alec stepped up to the plate and added to my skill set. And without him, none of this would’ve been possible. Without his training, I wouldn’t have had my speed, and if he wasn’t available to take me to Switzerland, I would’ve been without a coach to travel. Thank you Alec for all that you do for us.”

She also has a message of hope for everyone out there - “Recognize what you have control over and just live every day as if it was your last.”

The final Paralympic Qualifications race will be streamed on worldrowing.com.

Christa Akins’ GoFundMe can be found at gofundme.com/f/strokes-of-determination-last-chance-paralympic-qualifier.



Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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