Tami Saj

 

Achiever of Aquatic Excellence

Tami Saj began swimming at the age of four, growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario — but my daughter’s early attempts to swim were not impressive. Until she was about eight years of age, Tami would swim halfway across the pool and then begin to sink: first her legs, followed by her lower body. Soon her arms would be furiously splashing the water!

But Tami, now 22 years old, went on to become a powerful swimmer on the national swim team of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association, representing Canada for eight years (1986-1992) in numerous international swim competitions, including the 1988 Seoul Paralympics and the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics.

And on September 28, 1996, Tami was presented with one of the highest recognitions any athlete could receive.

At a gala dinner in Thunder Bay, attended by over 400 people, Tami was honoured for her sports excellence in swimming. Along with five other athletes, she was inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. (The five other athletes included three former NHL players, a CFL football player and a Canadian boxing champion.)

Tami is the eleventh woman athlete inducted, among 92 male athletes.

Sports Hall President Dick Hill said the 1996 Inductees have “brought pride to the northwestern Ontario region, through their outstanding accomplishments and commitment to excellence. We are proud to welcome you as our newest Honoured Members, a privilege reserved for only the finest athletes and builders from all across our region.”

Prime Minister Jean Chretien sent his greetings, saying of the athletes: “Through their support and dedication, they have contributed enormously to the world of sport.” Ontario Premier Mike Harris commented that the inductees have “…enhanced the athletic reputation of our province.” Ontario Liberal leader Lyn McLeod attended the dinner and personally congratulated Tami.

And Tami was surprised when former NHL hockey great Edgar Laprade dropped by her table to say he had been following her swimming career from the very beginning!

Tami, who appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of ABILITIES, was born with spina bifida. Doctors felt she would never walk on her own. But at the age of three she began to walk, and has been active in sports ever since, from swimming to horseback riding to kayaking (her current sports interest). Tami now uses a wheelchair to aid mobility, and continues to work out daily at the Canada Games Complex.

It was in an aquatics program for children with physical disabilities where Tami first learned to swim. At age nine, her potential as a competitive swimmer was recognized, and she joined the Thunder Bay Thunderbolts Swim Club, training and competing with able-bodied swimmers.

In 1985, at the early age of 11 years, Tami began to make waves in her chosen sport of swimming, claiming three golds and setting one provincial record at her first Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled. Her international career began at 12 years of age when the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association selected her to be a member of the 1986 Pan American Games for the Physically Disabled in Puerto Rico. Tami won three silver medals.

A year later, during the 1987 Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled in Toronto, Tami was chosen to be the games athlete to present flowers to Prince Andrew and Princess Sarah. She also won five golds and set five provincial records, and then flew to compete in her first Stoke-Mandeville World Wheelchair Games in England, where she won two silvers and a bronze.

At 14 years of age, Tami was already considered a veteran of the international swim scene and was ranked top in the world in her class when she was named to Canada’s 1988 Canadian Paralympic Team. Tami represented Canada with distinction in Seoul that year, narrowly missing a medal with a fourth-place finish in the 100m backstroke.

After the 1988 Paralympics, Tami took a leave from swimming to concentrate on school studies and to reassess her swimming goals. At the time, she held five national swim records and had competed in Europe, North America and Asia.

After a one-and-a-half-year absence from the swim scene, Tami returned to swimming and quickly got back on track, competing at her second Stoke-Mandeville World Wheelchair Games in England. She won two golds and three silvers for Canada, setting new Canadian records along the way. The following year, she attended her third Stoke-Mandeville Games, winning another gold medal.

In 1992, Tami was again selected to represent Canada at the Paralympics, this time travelling to Barcelona, where she competed in six different events.

Tami had decided to retire after the Barcelona Paralympics, but with the 1993 Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled being held in Thunder Bay, she decided to swim competitively one last time. She earned two gold and two silver medals, setting a Canadian record in the 50 m backstroke. It marked Tami’s last competitive swimming event.

“There are a lot of people who have helped me over the years,” says Tami. “I was stubborn and not an easy person to coach. But my national coaches, Alex Cranfield-Sinclair and Jamie Hood, worked with me even when I was difficult, and I thank them for their patience. And the local media have always been very supportive of me, always treating me as an athlete, not as a ’disabled athlete.’”

A permanent plaque with Tami’s picture is now housed in the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. It reads as follows:

Tami Saj, Athlete:
Claiming three silver medals at the 1986 Pan American Games for the Physically Disabled, this exceptional swimmer represented Canada with distinction in a number of events. Competing in Seoul at the 1988 Paralympic Games at only 14 years of age, she put in a fourth-place finish in the 100 m backstroke. At the Stoke-Mandeville World Wheelchair games in 1990 she won two gold and three silver medals, adding another gold in 1991. Competing in six events at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, she retired in 1993, having won over 60 medals and holding two Canadian backstroke records.
— Inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, September 28, 1996.

The Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame was established in Thunder Bay in 1978 with a mandate to preserve and honour the region’s rich and proud sports heritage.

(Elle Warner is a freelance writer living in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is also the proud mother of Tami Saj.)

 

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