VICTORIA—After representing Canada at four Paralympics, six major multi-sport games and countless international events where she filled up a bucket full of medals that sits today at the family home from the sports of swimming and triathlon, Jessica Tuomela has decided to call it a career.
“I just feel it is time. I just didn’t feel like I could train the way I wanted to in order to race at the level that I want to be at,” said Tuomela. “I know we could have made it to the Paris 2024 Games but for me it wasn’t about just qualifying. It was about going out and representing Canada, doing the best I could and that includes fighting for the podium. I just feel that is not in the cards for me anymore and it is time to move on.”
That certainly has been the mindset for the visually impaired athlete throughout her career that has spanned two decades where she grew into one of Canada’s most respected and accomplished Paralympians – first in the pool, then in triathlon for the final six years of her sporting career.
Growing up swimming in lakes of Northern Ontario near her Sault Ste. Marie home, Tuomela was terrified of deep water. She failed all swimming lessons as a child, but that changed after attending Ross MacDonald School for the Blind at age 12 where she developed a passion for swimming that led her to the Sault Ste. Marie Aquatic Club.
The little girl who had a fear for the deep water was quickly turning into one of Canada’s top Para-swim athletes. Tuomela competed for Canada’s national swim team from 2000 to 2008 where she won a silver medal in the 50m freestyle at the 2000 Paralympic Summer Games in Australia, won countless international medals including the Para Pan-Am Games. She also qualified for the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games
Tuomela stepped away from sport in 2008 to attend massage college. She worked as a massage therapist in Scotland for two years, while taking a Performance Psychology diploma course at the University of Edinburgh. But it wasn’t long until she began feeling she had unfinished business in the sport world. Looking for a new challenge, Tuomela was inspired to take up triathlon while training alongside triathletes in the pool on the road to Beijing. She bought a treadmill, signed up for a couple of half marathons, contacted coach Carolyn Murray and the rest is history after she flew out to Victoria for a talent identification camp.
“It was abosolutely terrifying. Just think about that – learning a whole new sport as a blind person. There was so many things to learn. I didn’t know about clipping my shoes in the pedals, or not to wear wide-legged pants on the bike. I couldn’t look at photos or see other people riding bikes,” Laughed Tuomela.
“I could not run five kilometres without stopping and even swimming in open water was terrifying, but I picked the sport because it was hard and I couldn’t do it.”
She credits coach Carolyn Murray as the genius behind teaching her to bike and run.
“It has been a privilege to coach Jessica over the last five years. I have been inspired and grown as a coach,” said Carolyn Murray, head coach, Canadian Para-Triathlon Team. “Jessica truly has knocked down every barrier in front of her, demonstrating tenacity and fearlessness we can all learn from. I am excited to see what she does next and I congratulate her on her incredible career.’
It didn’t long until Tuomela flipped the switch in her triple-sport rehearsal.
Competing in her first race in March 2017, Tuomela wasted no time capturing the triathlon world’s attention. Building on her first World Para-triathlon Series win in Edmonton in 2018, she headed into the Paralympic year after enjoying her best triathlon season that saw her capture a bronze medal at the World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, and finished on top of the podium at the Paralympic Test Event in Tokyo.
Tuomela went on to make her fourth trip to the Paralympics, first in triathlon, in Tokyo where she finished in fifth place. She went to her second multi-sport Games in the sport in 2022, representing Canada at the Commonwealth Games, where she claimed the bronze in Birmingham, UK. She also won eight Para World Triathlon Championship Series and World Cup medals throughout her career.
“Wearing the maple leaf and representing Canada was my life for so long. It was important to me, or I wouldn’t have done it that long so I’m going to miss that for sure. I’m also going to miss doing cool things for Canada,” added Tuomela, who is quick to credit her support system, most notably the four guides for her successful run in triathlon.
Former National Team athlete, Ellen Pennock, showed her the ropes in the sport. Lauren Babineau led her to her first set of major international podiums before Marianne Hogan guided her back to the Paralympics in her new sport. In the background throughout the journey was Emma Skaug – her training partner during COVID – who helped her get to the Games. The Canadian duo teamed up post-Tokyo where they went on to etch their names in the history books as the first Canadians ever to podium in paratriathlon at the Commonwealth Games.
“I don’t race unless I have a guide. More than that, when you are racing – whether you are a guide or a guided athlete – both are in a vulnerable position to give it your all. Everyone talks about me trusting them, but for them to trust me that much is huge, and something I will be forever grateful for,” stated Tuomela. “Learning to work on a team with someone else, race with someone else, is the part that I really loved. It’s a really challenging and rewarding relationship to be in. To be a part of that was very magical.
“I’ll probably never to be able to say thank you, or express how grateful I am to each of them for racing with me throughout years, but also for the things we all learned working together.”
Tuomela credits the camaraderie and friendship, a top-notch coach and a world-leading support team for helping her overcome her fears and contribute to a medal-winning run for Canada’s Para-Triathlon program with every member of the team celebrating personal milestone moments and podium performances.
“I’m gonna miss my teammates. We had a really cool and strong team,” said Tuomela. “I was scared learning this sport. It was all unknown, but that staff team is world class and the reason for my success. I have a bit of the same fear right now (moving on from sport), but I know I have all of these wonderful people as friends for life that I’ll always be able to lean on..”
It was only a short time ago that Tuomela could not run five kilometres. She is now training for her next adventure – to complete the Pony Express next year, which is a 50 mile run in Utah. She is working at Homewood Ravensview as a prime mental health therapist, while also continuing to get dogs into communities that need them by helping to grow True North Canine. Tuomela has three dogs. A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Hermione and Lucy, who is a Golden Retriever trained in Scent Discriminant Trailing at True North Canine. Her guide dog, Brandy, is a German Shepherd Lab cross.
One of the first 10 inductees in the Sault Ste. Marie Walk of Fame, Tuomela was also recognized in 1998 as one of 35 young people from North America and Russia to win the “Yes I Can” award, which recognizes the accomplishments of people with disabilities. She was also honoured in Sault Ste. Marie in 1992 for her academic achievements.
“My Grandma always says you have to leave something better than you found it, and that was my goal going into para triathlon – to help the sport grow, and get other female athletes excited about it. I think, in some ways, I leave knowing I did that, and it’s now time to move on to the next challenge.”
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