Eight years out of sport was enough for Jessica Tuomela

Canadian Paralympic Committee

July 12, 2019

“The first time I put a wetsuit on, I had a panic attack”



TORONTO – Jessica Tuomela was struck by the eight-year itch when she decided to dip into Para triathlon.

That was the length of the visually impaired athlete’s competitive sport stoppage after a successful career with the national Para swimming squad which included two Paralympic Games. 

In that gap between competitive careers, Tuomela, blinded by retinoblastoma at the age of three, finished her undergrad, earned a certificate as a massage therapist, worked four years in the field, and completed her master’s in social work.

“I was really trying to stay out of sport,” she said at the CPC’s Content Summit earlier this year. “But that growing desire to compete and to train really hadn’t gone away. So basically, eight years later, I decided I wanted to try triathlon, see if I was good at it and see if I had anything left in the tank.”

Now, the training regimen for high-performance swimmers is already considered epic. Triple that for the triathlon plus the need for a guide and Tuomela must have thought she’d fallen in the deep end. 

That was confirmed when she went for her first open water swim training. Besides the absence of lanes, Tuomela is also attached at the hip to her guide.

“The first time I put a wetsuit on, I had a panic attack,” said the 35-year-old Sault Ste. Marie native. “Then when I got into a lake and had to swim a stroke I could only swim about 150 metres before I had to stop. 

‘’I thought I was supposed to be good at this part. What’s going to happen with the other sports? What did I get myself into?

“Open water is a very different beast than lane swimming.”

The running part wasn’t a walk in the park either. The runners are tethered at the wrist.

“Running is still the greatest challenge for me after two years,” she said. “I have swimmer’s feet and they are incredibly flexible. I had to learn to run and be comfortable at high speeds since I can’t see anything at all.”

In the cycling portion, the athlete and guide ride on a tandem bike. Tuomela says it’s the most high-tech aspect of the sport. Much like in Para alpine skiing for the visually impaired, the guide is at the front and must be in constant contact with her rider to steer through the curves, bumps and passing that occurs in a race.

Tuomela credits Canadian national team coach Carolyn Murray for being patient with her in her development as a triathlete.

“I don’t know why she decided to take me on because at first I couldn’t even run five kilometres,” Tuomela said. “She must have seen something. She has dedicated a lot of time and energy into teaching me.”

Last season at the ITU Para triathlon series event in Edmonton, Tuomela made history with her then-guide Lauren Babineau. She became the first fully blind athlete to win gold in an event on the circuit.

This year in her opening race on the Series she placed fourth with her new guide Marianne Hogan. They will compete later this year at international events in Montreal and Magog as well at the world championships in Switzerland.

They hope to be on the start list at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

“Up until Edmonton, I didn’t even think about representing Canada because I wasn’t sure I could represent myself,” she said. “Now I’m at a point where the aerobic fitness and training are there. 

“How many people get to make a comeback eight years later. It’s a huge privilege.”

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