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Finding freedom in the pool

Georgia Weaver, reporting for The Press

When most teenage girls are thinking about the school ball and exams, Jacquie Ruth’s sole focus is the swimming pool.

The 17-year-old Rangi Ruru pupil, who has an eye on the 2020 Paralympics, yearns for the “physical freedom” the water provides.

“I can swim a lot further than I can walk,” she said.

Ruth was born with achondroplasia, a shortening of her arms and legs, otherwise known as dwarfism. Her spine is smaller than the nerves it hosts, which means her nerves are compressed.

Her parents encouraged her to learn to swim before she started primary school.

“I’m top heavy so I naturally sink.”

A foam board was put in the back of her togs to help her learn to float.

Ruth was 13 when she had her first spinal surgery. Her second was last year.

Doctors put in 20 screws, two rods and two plates to stabilise her spine and make more room, and she spent six weeks out of the water during the recovery.

The enforced break drove her “absolutely nuts”.

Ruth trains six to seven times a week and sometimes more if she is preparing for a competition, but does not find it onerous.

“It’s something I do to actually do something. I can’t sit still.”

She has been rigorously assessed by Paralympics New Zealand to determine her level of disability, which she said was an “absolutely brutal” process.

“They have to push your limits to know you’re not faking your disability.”

Having a disability in no way holds Ruth back. With the help of pedal extensions installed by her engineer father, she was able to learn how to drive.

“The independence of having a car is probably more valuable for me than most people my age.”

The only difficulty Ruth encounters is when she is shopping for clothes: her mother has to adjust the length of the arms and legs.

Her next challenge in the pool is the national championships in Wellington in September.

She aims to take it a little easier this year after swimming in 11 heats and 11 finals within five days at last year’s event.

“That was potentially one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. Too many races, I was a bit of a train wreck at the end.”

Ruth has an eye on the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan. If that looks possible, she will commit fully to swimming. “It’s something that I love – that’s pretty much the reason why I do it.”