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Michelle Tovizi
Michelle Tovizi, a student in Seneca’s Social Service Worker diploma program, wins a bronze medal in the 4x100 medley relay during the Lima 2019 Parapan American Games.

Sept. 5, 2019

When she was a little girl, Michelle Tovizi failed Level 1 swimming because she couldn’t kick. Now 19 years old, the Seneca student still can’t kick, but that didn’t stop her from winning a bronze medal in the 4x100 medley relay during the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru last week.

“I didn’t think I’d make it this far,” said Tovizi, who also placed fourth in the 50-metre freestyle. “It’s crazy.”

Born with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects both of her legs from the hip down, Tovizi uses a walker or cane to get around. Her balance isn’t very good. Swimming was supposed to be an extracurricular activity to keep her physical abilities from worsening — doctor’s orders. It has done that but it has also turned into something much bigger for the Markham native.

Michelle with her team
Michelle Tovizi, far right, waves to her family from the medal podium with her relay team after winning bronze at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. (Photo: Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Tovizi began competitive swimming six years ago when she learned about para-swimming. For her, that means swimming with her arms as her legs sink in the water.

“We are just the same as able-bodied swimmers. We just need tweaks and modifications,” she said. “When I’m in the water, I feel freedom. I don’t need anything. I’m just free.”

That being said, “I make it look easy, but it’s not. There are so many times when I wish I could just kick,” she added.

Tovizi is the only para-swimmer at the North York Aquatic Club, where she has trained in recent years. To build up her upper-body muscles that she relies on for strength, she has to exercise her arms, back and abdomen in dryland training. For a few years, she was part of Swimming Canada’s NextGen program. Last year, Tovizi represented Canada at the World Para Swimming World Series in Italy and also at the Cerebral Palsy World Games in Spain.

“I hate the word disabilities — we all have different abilities,” she said. “I find para-swimming especially interesting, inspiring and fascinating because you can be in the same category with someone else, but everyone has a different way of swimming.”

Michelle swimming
Michelle Tovizi competes in one of her events during the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. (Photo: Canadian Paralympic Committee / Scott Grant)

Due to her busy training and competition schedule, Tovizi studies part time in the Social Service Worker diploma program at Seneca.

“Seneca was one of my top choices. I just started the program, but I have already learned so much from it,” she said. “I feel like the people here are welcoming and non-judgmental. They didn’t look at my walker. They talked to me like everyone else.”

Since she started her program last fall, Tovizi said she has been inspired to help people just like her family, friends, teachers, coaches and teammates have helped and supported her.

“Without them and their dedication, I wouldn’t be able to get to where I am today,” she said. “I’m so thankful to be surrounded by such amazing and positive people.”

With her goal now set on competing at the 2020 Paralympic Games, Tovizi hopes her story will inspire others along the way.

“Swimming has shaped my life. In many ways, it has helped me both physically and emotionally. Although I’ve had to give up a lot of things, such as my social life, I’ve gained many amazing opportunities and experiences through swimming. I’ve met many amazing people around the world and I'm truly blessed for it all,” she said.

“No matter what your abilities are, don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do it. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from achieving your dreams and goals in life. Embrace who you are and live your life to the fullest.”