Connecticut high school senior trains for 2012 Paralympic contests

East Catholic High School senior, Kristin Duquette
East Catholic High School senior, Kristin Duquette


By Lenora Sumsky

Sitting poolside at Glenbrooke Swim and Tennis Club in East Hartford, Connecticut, Kristin Duquette is like any other high school student chatting with friends and enjoying sunshine, warm temperatures, and summer vacation. But, most of the time, Kristin, who is a senior at East Catholic High School, is in the water working to improve her swimming and achieve her objective: to win a gold medal in an international swim competition despite having muscular dystrophy.

While the Olympic Games in Beijing are under way this month, Kristin is focused on swimming in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

“If determination is a factor, she’ll go all the way,” said Cathy Topping, swim coach at East Catholic.

The Paralympic Games, created in 1960, are a multisport event for athletes with physical or sensorial disabilities. This includes mobility disabilities, amputations, visual disabilities and cerebral palsy. The games are held every four years, following the Olympic Games.

Athletes who participate in Paralympic sports are grouped into six major categories, based on their type of disability.

Muscular dystrophy is a genetic disease that causes progressive muscle weakness.

Kristin was just 6 years old when she began swimming competitively at Glenbrooke Swim Club. She loved the water, showed great promise and dreamed of swimming in the Olympics. Three years later, after being diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), Kristin stopped swimming and focused her energy on playing the violin.

Ironically, swimming is a therapy recommended by the Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSH) Society and is especially helpful in making many movements easier.  However, Duquette’s family weren’t aware of it that back then. Nor did they realize that developing the precise posture required to play the violin was also therapeutic.

In the years that followed, Kristin and her family learned a lot about the disease, for which there is no treatment or cure. Three years ago, she began a holistic regimen that combined physical therapies with a nutritional program that eliminated sugar, gluten, peanuts and dairy products. She began swimming again, this time with the goal of earning a spot on the East Catholic High School swim team.

She e-mailed Coach Topping, described her accomplishments and asked to join.

“She told me I would have a spot on the East Catholic Swim Team. I was so excited,” Kristin said.

Coach Topping said that she didn’t expect Kristin to earn points in competition, but knew her spirit would guide the team. The team won the Northwest Conference and State Championships this year.

“Kristin is well-respected by teammates and was voted most-improved junior,” said her coach. “I don’t think of her as handicapped; she is handi-capable.”

The Paralympic swim team

It was Coach Topping who suggested that Kristin try out for the Paralympic swim team.

Kristin participated in her first international swim meet, the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Championships, in December at the University of Maryland. More than 250 athletes with physical disabilities from 16 countries competed, including all members of the United States Paralympics Swimming elite and national teams.

“It was so awesome,” said Kristin. “I was with swimmers from around the world and competing against swimmers from Australia, France, Mexico and Spain.”

“For the first time, I was surrounded by swimmers who understood where I came from. Every day, I met someone new and they all encouraged me,” she said.

“I learned that elite and national swim teams are made up of humble people,” she wrote in an essay posted on the Manchester Swim Club’s Web site. “Every single swimmer had a physical ‘imperfection’ and had to overcome many challenges to swim, but they swam well and with passion,” she wrote.

Kristin qualified for the 50-meter backstroke and managed to cut seven seconds between the preliminary and final rounds.

“The race was amazing,” she said. “Going to my first Paralympic meet gave me more incentive not just to succeed in swimming and go to the 2012 Paralympics, but to succeed in life. Every swimmer had the determination and belief that they can contribute something even though they don’t have limbs, strong muscles, or sight.”

“Paralympic swimming is a great experience,” said Maura Grusse, a member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church in Hartford, who also has a Paralympic swimmer in her family. “It lets physically challenged athletes compete on a level playing field.”

In competition with able-bodied athletes, Paralympic swimmers work to achieve their personal best with little chance of winning their event, she said.

“The Paralympic swim teams provide athletes opportunities to meet and develop friendships with other athletes who face physical challenges,” said Mrs. Grusse, whose daughter, Rachel, is ranked among the top 25 swimmers in the world for two events in her category.

Kristin trains year-round and, in a Paralympic competition last May, established the first American record for the 200 meter backstroke in her category. She swam in the National Junior Disability Championships that were held at Rutgers University, in July as a member of the Wave, a Connecticut swim team that is sponsored by the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain.

During the competition, Kristin earned a world rank for the 50-meter backstroke. She is now ranked 18th in the world and third nationally for this event.

Kristin believes that each competitive swim experience helps prepare her to make the Paralympics team that will compete in London in 2012.

This month, she’ll ease up on her grueling training schedule to travel with her family to San Diego to rest, relax and, of course, swim. Through a program sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, professional instructors will introduce Kristin to ocean swimming. She’ll also try surfing with her mentor, Ryan Levinson, a triathlon athlete who also has muscular dystrophy.

‘An inspiration’

Kristin applies the same determination in music as she does in swimming. She is a violinist in the Connecticut Youth Symphony of the Hartt School Community Division and has played for St. Christopher Church in East Hartford and St Patrick-St. Anthony Church in Hartford.

“She is a kid with a heart of gold,” said Mr. Brian Frazier, who has served as music director at both parishes. “I’ve met a lot of determined musicians, but Kristin has the focus to stick to her goals and overcome obstacles that she faces every day.”

Kristin also plays in the East Catholic High School orchestra. She is an honor roll student and a member of the school peer ministry team and Student Ambassador group.

“Kristin is such an inspiration,” said Dominican Sister Valerie Noone, who works in the advancement office at East Catholic and was principal at St. Christopher School when Kristin attended. “She has always had a positive, can-do attitude.

“She is a good role model and a wonderful example of what you can do when you put your mind to it,” said Sister Valerie.

“I am grateful,” said Kristin, “to everyone who has been a part of my journey to achieve my dreams and goals; from my friends, who are the greatest in the world, to my family and my community and my sponsors. I honestly have an amazing life.”

Printed with permission from the Catholic Transcript, newspaper from the Archdiocese of Hartford.

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