By Martin Cleary
Food is a big part of Trinity Lowthian’s life.
When time permits, the third-year University of Ottawa nutrition and food science student takes great delight in cooking her favourite pastas, baking pies and making her own ice cream.
“Anything. I like playing around (with different foods including dairy- and egg-free recipes),” she said enthusiastically. “It goes in phases. I will make a different ice cream each week in the summer. Now that it’s colder, I’m doing what I can with apples.”
When she completes her dishes, she’ll pass them along to family, friends or her university peers.
But Lowthian, 20, doesn’t eat the food she makes. She can’t and doesn’t eat food in the way most others do.
Lowthian also doesn’t drink coffee, milk or juices. She can’t and doesn’t drink any liquids through her mouth.
A full-time university student and an athlete on the rise, Lowthian lives each day being fed the proper balance of proteins, carbs, minerals, dextrose, electrolytes and vitamins as well as being adequately hydrated through intravenous therapy.
In 2018, the South Carleton High School student-athlete became sick. Medical tests showed she had intestinal and stomach failure as well as some neuropathy issues.
She couldn’t digest food. As a patient at CHEO, Lowthian completed her high school studies and was finally discharged in 2020. But when she returned to her Stittsville home, the COVID pandemic prevented her from returning to any exercise-related activities.
During the day, Lowthian keeps herself hydrated three times a day with one to two litres of a saline solution or saline with dextrose. The liquid is pumped through an intravenous line, into her heart and through her system.
While she sleeps at night, Lowthian is hydrated with a solution called TPN, which is Total Parenteral Nutrition. It provides her with all her daily nutritional requirements. She receives her nutrition once a day.
In January, a new medication was introduced to assist with her intestinal and stomach failure. At the time, her life was “going very poorly mentally and physically.”
But the medication left her with meningitis, an inflammation of the protective membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is a potential side effect of the medication. She has been in a wheelchair full time since June.
Understandably, Lowthian, an upbeat and positive young woman, was upset she has lost her ability to do two of life’s most enjoyable pleasures.
“It sucks. That’s the short answer,” Lowthian said, when asked about not being able to eat or drink. “Definitely, as time passes, I have gotten closer to the acceptance part. I miss the social part of food. But I’m grateful I am doing well on it as most people on this treatment don’t have the same quality of life as me.”
Adjusting to a brand new way of living has been the ultimate challenge for her, but she is travelling a more positive road these days as an in-class or at-home student and a developing athlete.
“I honestly feel so much better. I’m not back to myself, but back to a good sense of self,” she admitted.
ATHLETE TRANSITIONING TO PARA SPORT
For most of her pre-teen and teenage years, Lowthian was an active youth. Participation in sports was more satisfying than striving for the podium, although that happened on occasion.
From 2011-17, Lowthian tested her athletic abilities in more than a dozen triathlons and twice she lined up with thousands of runners for the Canada Army Run.
For four winters, she jumped into the pool and battled as a water polo player for the Ottawa Titans and snapped on her cross-country skis and strapped a rifle to her back as a cadet for biathlon training and competitions.
She dreamed of representing Canada at an Olympic Games. Her birthday parties were a true indication of that as her cake always had an Olympic theme, including the five interlocking rings made of icing.
But when health issues took away her ability to be an able-bodied athlete, she simply looked ahead and saw she could be a para athlete in a sporting field that had many opportunities.
Before she got meningitis, she attended a University of Ottawa fencing practice to get an understanding of life on the piste.
“I thought fencing was a weird, niche sport and I’ve gravitated to fringe sports. But my body wasn’t in a place for it (able-bodied),” she explained.
Wanting to become part of a Paralympic sport and having been mildly inspired by the movie Rising Phoenix about the lives of athletes with disabilities, Lowthian contacted a welcoming Paul ApSimon, the head coach of Ottawa Fencing, in December. She joined Ottawa Fencing in May, after dealing with her bout of meningitis.
“I really liked the fact it was a small community,” she said. “I thought fencing was cool. There are not a lot of people who do it and there were openings for opportunities and qualifications. I think I had a good chance to do it.”
There are only a handful of wheelchair fencers in Canada and none at Ottawa Fencing before Lowthian rolled into the club’s St. Paul University gymnasium.
Over the past few months, Ottawa Fencing was able to get the proper equipment to secure Lowthian’s wheelchair to the ground and allow her to learn the basics of the sport, train and eventually enter competitions. Her legs would be braced to her chair for stability and her free hand would grasp the wheelchair handle.
Lowthian does not have function in her lower body and has no abdominal strength. But she is fully capable of pushing forward and backward from the waist up to attack and retreat as a para fencer.
When it was time to practise, she would face able-bodied club fencers, who would sit in a facing wheelchair so she could work on her moves in epee, sabre and foil.
“As a sport, I didn’t understand anything,” Lowthian said about her para-fencing introduction. “My physio wanted to see a video and asked me to explain what was happening. I didn’t have a clue.”
But like anything new, it wasn’t until recently that time and practice allowed her to feel comfortable in and knowledgeable about her new sport.
“I don’t know if I’m there yet. I learned a lot at my last competition. It was my first experience. I don’t feel I have the groove of it yet,” she said.
The first time Lowthian tried wheelchair fencing, ApSimon, a former long-time Canadian national team and Olympic coach, was shocked by her effort.
“This girl was incredible, explosive, powerful, stubborn and a fierce competitor,” he recalled.
After five months of training four times a week, Lowthian was ready for her first two competitions in late October. But it wasn’t a local meet. Instead, she would be flying to Sao Paulo, Brazil for the world U23 wheelchair fencing championships and the Pan-American championships, which also was an Americas zone qualification meet for the 2024 Paris Paralympic Summer Games.
Competing was only half the battle for Lowthian and ApSimon during the 10-day trip to Brazil. Besides her fencing equipment and wheelchair, they needed to bring 10 bags (20 litres) of her TPN nutrition in a cooler and 25 litres of saline solution to keep her hydrated. It weighed about 40 kilograms and was stored inside the plane’s cabin.
Part way into the competition, Lowthian was running out of the saline solution because the heat and altitude (almost 2,500 feet) in Sao Paulo required her to take six litres a day instead of two a day. Lowthian contacted her doctor, who gave her a prescription for more saline. Another doctor at the world championships filled the prescription and had it delivered to her hotel so she would have enough liquid.
The world U23 championships was an open competition for para fencers, who were classified as A or B athletes based on their disabilities. Lowthian is a class B athlete and would have a slight disadvantage against class A wheelchair fencers.
Lowthian was fifth in the world U23 foil competition, losing her quarterfinal match 15-13 and missing an opportunity to vie for gold, silver or one of two bronze medals. She also was sixth in the epee and sabre disciplines. Although there were no medals for her class, she was the top B class wheelchair fencer at the world U23s.
She competed in all three weapons at both competitions to help her find which discipline may be her strongest in the future.
At the Pan-American championships, a qualifying event for the 2024 Paralympics, Lowthian only competed against class-B fencers and she excelled, winning one silver and three bronze medals.
She lost 15-12 to American Ellen Geddes, who is No. 3 in the world, in the epee final. In the semifinals, Lowthian defeated the world No. 8. Her other medals were all bronze in the sabre, foil and team competitions.
Lowthian was fatigued at the end of the sabre event and lost her semifinal 15-14 to a Venezuelan athlete, after leading 12-5.
“She was upset. It was a great learning experience. She had frozen a bit, lost her game plan and got nervous,” ApSimon said. “It was interesting to see her progression and how she ended up adapting in the foil (the next day).”
ApSimon has been impressed with Lowthian’s perseverance and ability to learn over the past six months. Lowthian is now adding strength training to her schedule.
“She will learn something and apply it immediately,” he said. “I don’t find all athletes do that. That transfer is instantaneous and it gets her to a higher level faster and there’s not a three- to four-month delay.
Lowthian called her first two competitions “wild,” but was thrilled she was able to travel smoothly with all of her medical requirements.
“It was my first time fencing any other para-fencers. I felt I was able to handle their different styles. I only had been training foil and sabre and had two lessons in epee. But epee was my best weapon,” she said.
“I definitely feel I did well and I’m in a good position to do well next year. This has given me hope and has not crushed me.”
Lowthian has been invited by Geddes to a training camp in January in Washington, D.C., to prepare for the upcoming World Cup season.
“The ultimate goal is to qualify for Paris,” added Lowthian, who must be ranked No. 1 in one of the three weapons to represent Canada at the 2024 Summer Paralympics. “I’m definitely on the right track. It’s looking more of a possibility than an impossibility.”
And when it comes to her 21st birthday, Lowthian can expect to have a Paralympic-themed party with the three crescent-moon-shaped agitos on the cake in the colours of red, blue and green. (Agitos is Latin for “I move.”)
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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