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Nancy Kawaja

Nancy Kawaja: Breaking Boundaries

Meet Nancy Kawaja: a vibrant academic, mom-of-two and athlete with a passion for Crossfit and breaking boundaries in the fitness space.

The lifelong sports enthusiast grew up in Nova Scotia and was well-versed in running marathons, cycling and swimming prior to a car accident in 1992, which left her with a head injury and learning challenges. Then, just four years ago, she sustained a spinal cord injury that impacted her mobility and led to the use of a wheelchair and forearm crutches. 

But that didn’t stop Nancy; even before completing her rehab program, she was quickly adapting and finding physical activities that worked for her. 

A Lens of Privilege 

A special education teacher familiar with the concepts of universal design and assistive technology, Nancy says her transition to fitness with a disability came with a sense of privilege many in the community do not have. 

“I am acutely aware of the poverty that exists in the disability community in Ontario. I had certain advantages in place, like a paid full-time job, multiple degrees and knowledge about disability issues,” she says, “Now, I am actively involved in advocating for others with disabilities and communicate regularly with physiatrists, OTs and anyone who will listen to help them better understand disability. I have a voice and I want to use it – but I never wish to centre things around myself. It is important to speak up for those who have challenges.” 

Nancy with SCIO’s Chris Bourne.
Nancy with SCIO’s Chris Bourne.

The Power of Fitness for Mental Health

For Nancy, sport has been life-giving, especially these past two years, with the heightened sense of isolation during a pandemic. 

“An hour at the gym gives me so much confidence and joy,” she shares. In the early stages of her transition, Nancy’s main focus was to find alternative ways to get moving and balance her mind. It wasn’t always easy or accessible, but she used her mindset – and her resources –  to break boundaries in ordinary gym settings.

“The gym I go to is an industrial garage turned into a Crossfit space,” she says. 

A former Crossfitter, Nancy was keen to find a way to do it again, and worked with her coach, Andy Stewart, who was determined to create an adaptive CrossFit program. 

The members of Crossfit 1855, along with Stewart, banded together to ensure Nancy had access to an accessible parking spot and ample space in the centre itself to participate in workouts using a wheelchair — even if that meant taking up two spots. 

“There is power in community; by showing up and taking the first step to involve myself, I was accommodated. Accessibility on its own is not enough for me. It’s about fostering a culture of inclusion. I wheeled in with a smile and was welcomed.”

Her advice to others with disabilities thinking about starting their fitness journey? Find adaptive programs. She raves about WheelWod, an Ontario-based fitness program that promotes adaptive exercises and puts out free content weekly. 

She also raves about CADS (Canadian Adaptive Snowsport Program), a program she was introduced to through SCIO’s Chris Bourne. In only one season with CADS, Nancy was able to hit the slopes independently, an experience she calls “life-changing”. 

Athleticism and Motherhood 

Nancy’s athleticism carries over into her parenting style. The single mom-of-two is determined to participate in as many physical activities with her children as possible. 

“It doesn’t always feel good to be sitting off to the side, watching them do things,” she says, “So I try to be involved. The goal is to be able to do activities with my children. That’s where the big conversations happen, especially when they’re adolescents. It’s an opportunity to bond and connect.”

Her current endeavor is learning the art of sit-skiing, and though it doesn’t come without a fall or two, she is thoroughly enjoying the time spent with her son and daughter, while showing onlookers that it’s okay to fall and get back up again. 

Away from the slopes, Nancy and her kids are committed to a fitness regime of “100 a Day” –  pushups or situps, which allows them to spend time together while boosting their mood through physical exercise. 

“I have amazing kids,” says Nancy, “They see some of my challenges and we talk a lot and move a lot together. I am humbled by their ability to notice barriers in other people’s lives and to act on it to bring about change.” Most recently, her son created a video addressed to the mayor to raise awareness from a child’s perspective on the importance of beach matts to provide safe access walkways over soft sand surfaces.

“Being a mom,” she says, “Is the most important job in the world. It’s an incredible strength to be fierce and caring at the same time. I can love as fiercely as I can push, and cry as hard as I can laugh.” 

Making Space for Yourself in the World 

When reflecting on her overall journey, there is a key piece of advice that stands out to Nancy.

It stems from a conversation with her friend, Dr. Luis Perez, a blind photographer and Apple Distinguished Educator.

“He said, ‘Never forget to make space for yourself in this world’, and it changed my outlook forever. I am proud to be a female adaptive athlete.”

Nancy is currently working on her Master’s of Education and looks forward to a trip to the Yukon this summer with her kids.

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