One of Canada’s great Paralympians Jessica Tuomela retires

Canadian Paralympic Committee

February 09, 2024

Two sport star overcame fear, challenges to reach top

Jessica Tuomela

VICTORIA – After an eight-year hiatus from competitive sport, Jessica Tuomela remembers that major decision when she decided to get back into the ring – but not in Para swimming in which she competed at three Paralympic Games.

This time she was going to subject herself to Para triathlon, basically three sports in one. Visually impaired due to retinoblastoma at the age of three, Tuomela learned long before not to let fear put a stick in her wheels.

“It was a great choice,” she said in an interview with CPC. “It was terrifying. I moved across the country by myself to a city (Victoria) that I didn’t know. I was getting into a sport that I knew nothing about. A sport that required me to run five kilometres after swimming and biking.

 “I couldn’t run five kilometres period.”

That was 2017 and Tuomela went on to compete in 30 Para triathlon World Triathlon sanctioned events including World Cups and world championships. She stepped on the podium a whopping 22 times including nine victories.

Her most recent victory was last July at the Para Cup in Long Beach, California and she collected two other international medals as well in 2023 with her guide Emma Skaug of Victoria. In 2018 at a World Cup in Edmonton, she made history with her then-guide Lauren Babineau becoming the first fully blind athlete to win gold in an event on the circuit.

But recent health issues derailed her training to the point that she felt a medal would be almost impossible at Paris 2024.

Through Triathlon Canada, she officially announced her retirement from competitive sport in late December.

“It was a really big decision,” said the 40-year-old. “I’ve been in competitive sport essentially since 2000. It was just time. I haven’t trained in a way that I need, for me in my own mind, in order to be competitive in triathlon.

“Triathlon is a very challenging training sport. It’s not uncommon to go three to four weeks without having a day off. I just couldn’t keep up. I wanted us to be competitive and I didn’t feel like I could bring that anymore.”

Tuomela competed for Canada’s national Para swim team from 2000 to 2008. She attended three Paralympic Games in that period highlighted by a silver medal in the 50m freestyle in Sydney. In that gap between competitive careers (2008-2017) she finished her undergrad, earned a certificate as a massage therapist, working four years in the field, and completed her master’s in social work.

She is currently a mental health therapist at an addiction treatment centre in Victoria and also has her own business in which she trains and works with dogs to find missing people.

Tuomela made headlines in 2023, when she helped rescue a missing person with dementia, with the help of her trained canine Lucy.

She reached a fourth Paralympics in 2020, her first in Para triathlon, finishing fifth with her guide Marianne Hogan. Guides are obviously crucial to visually impaired competitors in Para triathlon and Tuomela says as the Para athletes become more skilled higher and higher levels of guides are needed.

“I’m always so, so thankful to the men and women who stepped up and raced and trained with me,” said Tuomela. “Without these people I wouldn’t have had the sporting career that I had. Para triathlon is fast and competitive. We need guides who have that competitive edge and who want to fight for a medal.”

Tuomela continues to remain involved in sport and she hopes to remain infiltrated in the Paralympic family.

“It was part of my life for such a long time that you can’t just not be a part of it.”

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