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Diver Audrée Howes overcomes vision & COVID hurdles to qualify for Canada Summer Games

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Audrée Howes.

By Mark Colley

Audrée Howes is doing everything right. The 16-year-old diver is set to compete at the Canada Summer Games in Niagara and is already working towards a career goal of getting a scholarship to dive for an NCAA university.

The only difference between Howes and other divers is that she can’t see the end of the diving tower.

Howes, who finished Grade 10 at John McCrae Secondary School in Nepean this past school year, was born with high astigmatism. She has blurred distance and near vision. While she wears glasses most of the time, there’s no contacts that match her prescription.

That means when Howes is diving, she wears contacts only half the strength of her necessary prescription. It’s better than nothing, she says, but is a challenge she’s had to overcome throughout her diving career.

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Howes – whose sport does not feature a para division – sometimes places a bright towel near the edge of the platform to help her see where it ends, or she might adapt by modifying her dive, either standing or taking one step to start a dive instead of running to the end of the tower.

“It makes it hard to get that extra rotation for some dives,” explained the Ottawa National Diving Club athlete, noting that muscle memory and plenty of practice are her best tools. “If I can’t use my eyes, my muscles can remember.”

Hard work at home during COVID part of Howes’ eventual winning recipe

Audrée Howes. Photo: Dan Plouffe

Another challenge that stood between her and the Canada Summer Games this August was the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of her future Games competitors were able to train at a pool, Howes hadn’t yet reached the status to gain a high-performance training exemption. Instead, she bought an air track tumbling mat and trained in her front yard.

“The whole neighbourhood could see it,” Howes underlined. “I was dedicated. I didn’t care who saw me. I just wanted to practice.”

The practice paid off, and reaching the Niagara Games is a great reward for those efforts, she highlighted.

“Even though I didn’t get to train and get that extra two years to keep practicing, I still made it to the Canada Games,” Howes said. “They got to train, I didn’t, and I’m on the same level as them.”

The lack of pool access sometimes got to Howe. She recalled feeling frustrated at how unfair it was that some athletes could work on their craft and learn new dives at pools while she was stuck at home.

One of the things that kept her motivated was watching videos of diving.

“On days that I don’t feel good, I don’t want to move … I’m like, ugh, I’ll just watch the Olympics from 2016 in Rio,” Howes said. “[Then] I want to dive again! Just watching them succeed, I want to feel that same thing. That got me excited.”

Brennan Villemaire, Howes’ coach at Ottawa National, said her ability to push through the pandemic shows her dedication.

“That’s your judge of character of how much you’re dedicated to your sport when you don’t have access to train,” Villemaire highlighted.

What allows Howes to work past her obstacles, Villemaire explained, is her maturity in dedicating herself to diving.

Part of this is having Kathryn Grant as a role model. Grant is headed to the University of Utah and said she “always really wanted to be that person for the younger athletes — to set a good example and push them to be their best.”

Read More: After 10 years together, it’ll be a bittersweet goodbye for coach and NCAA-bound diver Kathryn Grant

Audrée Howes. Photo: Dan Plouffe

Howes followed Grant’s path to John McCrae Secondary School after hearing good things about the school from the Utah-bound diver. Seeing Grant achieve her NCAA dreams had a large impact on Howes’ own goals, the younger of the two explained.

“It’s amazing. Because she did it, I can see that it is possible,” Howes added. “I wouldn’t say I’m on the same level as her, but if I push even harder, I can do just as good as her. It inspires me.”

Howes said she has three goals, one of which she already accomplished by qualifying for the junior nationals this year. She also wants to get an NCAA scholarship and make it to finals at the Canada Summer Games.

She works closely with her coach on setting these benchmarks. Howes also has a notebook at home that she writes goals down in at the start of the year. At the end of the year, she goes over the list and checks off what she accomplished.

“[That way], next year, I can push even harder to accomplish it,” Howes explained.

–With files from Dan Plouffe

The Canada Games diving competition runs from Aug. 16-21. Consult the full schedule here.

Read More and follow our Ottawa at the Canada Summer Games Series, presented by City of Ottawa Sports Commissioner Mathieu Fleury.

In the two weeks leading up to the start of the Canada Summer Games, will be profiling participating local athletes. During the Aug. 6-21 Games, we’ll bring you daily reporting live from Niagara Region. Sign up to receive our free Ottawa at the Canada Summer Games Daily Newsletter to follow along!

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