Lily and the lake: How a young B.C. girl with Down syndrome swam to her dream

Ida Jenss and Lily Nay swam across Kootenay Lake near Kaslo on Thursday. Photos: Tyler Harper
New experiences are difficult for Lily, who needed some help hopping off the boat into the lake. Photos: Tyler Harper
Ida Jenss leads Lily at the mid-way point of the swim across Kootenay Lake. Photos: Tyler Harper
Ida played games with Lily to keep her going and coaxed her with the promise of a good lunch. Photos: Tyler Harper
A small group of friends cheer the pair on as they approach the end of their swim. Photos: Tyler Harper

Lily Nay, a very special girl, woke up in a very foul mood.

Outside Lily’s window, an overcast sky had settled over her home in Kaslo. Light rain sprinkled the ground and wind ruffled leaves in the trees. The summer had, at least for the day, opted to stay in bed. Perhaps Lily would as well.

But instead she got up and had a hearty breakfast. And once she remembered what she had planned, Lily decided she wasn’t so grumpy after all.

For on this glum September morning, Lily Nay was going to swim across the Kootenay Lake.

If any 10 year old could swim the lake, it would be Lily. She swims every day. Because she was born with Down syndrome, Lily experiences hypotonia, or low muscle tone. Being in the water helps her core stay strong and lets her keep up with her friends. It also means Lily can do something her mother can’t.

When Fiona Nay learned she would have a daughter with Down syndrome, she was terrified. She thought her life would change in terrible ways, and cried for months after learning the news.

But there are 45,000 Canadians living with Down syndrome, according to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. As Fiona soon learned, they are capable of wonderful things like acting, athletics, art and, of course, swimming. The Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization lists Canadian Michael Qing among its world record holders. Special Olympics Canada’s swimming team includes Bobbi-Lynn Cleland, who has been competing for 30 years.

Lily’s first wonderful thing was learning to read at just two years old, well before many of her friends could. Her second was starting private lessons in the water at six or seven years old. Trips to the pool became a daily ritual for Lily.

Fiona can’t swim, not even a little. But when she watches her daughter in the water, she isn’t nervous for Lily’s safety. All she feels is pride.

“She’s just like a little dolphin, a little fish,” said Fiona.

Last year, Lily made a new friend. Ida Jenss moved to Kaslo from Germany to live with the family as an au pair.

Ida is 20 years old and a strong swimmer. So when the weather is good, and sometimes even when it isn’t, Lily and Ida start swimming at noon and don’t stop until it’s time for dinner.

Shortly after she arrived, Ida thought she might try swimming across Kootenay Lake. The lake is eight kilometres at its widest point, but only slightly less than a kilometre and a half across from the tip of Kaslo.

Ida’s idea became Lily’s goal. At first she was scared of the lake, which was open and intimidating compared to her pool. So Ida began taking Lily to the beach, and soon she had to keep Lily from swimming too far out.

Then, on the gloomy September morning when tourists abandoned the lake to fish and osprey, Lily put on her wetsuit and went to the water.

As a fishing boat approached the dock to pick up Fiona, Ida and Lily, she turned to her mother and asked, “We don’t have to turn around?”

“No,” replied Fiona. “No one is going to stop you.”

Lily turned back to face the lake and smiled. Today was at last the day.

This is the route Lily and Ida swam. Photo: Google Maps, Animation: Sandra Leonard.

When the boat arrived at the start point, Ida dove in the water and forced herself to smile for Lily who watched from the bow. The temperature was chilly and the waves made it difficult to tread water.

Lily had never jumped off a boat before. She suddenly wasn’t so sure this was a good idea.

“It’s too cold,” she said.

“No it isn’t,” fibbed Ida. “See? I’m in and I’m fine.”

“Lies, lies lies,” said Lily.

So she counted to three on her hands. One, two, three, and she jumped into Ida’s arms.

“It’s cold!” Lily cried, but she stayed with Ida anyway.

The pair paddled away from the boat and for a time didn’t swim. As she watched from the boat, Fiona wondered if today was indeed the day.

But then they began to play a game. Ida started swimming away while Lily pretended to be a shark, and later they swapped who was the hunter and who was the prey.

As Lily and Ida approached the halfway point, the sun peeked through the clouds and Fiona allowed herself to hope they would finish the swim. But in the water Lily’s attention wavered. She was getting tired and hungry.

Ida continued to coax her on with the promise of food. Lily is a big fan of food, especially pizza. There was pizza waiting for her on the other side, said Ida, and that encouraged Lily to keep swimming.

Meanwhile in Kaslo, word began to spread about the little girl with blonde French braids in the lake. A group of Lily’s friends gathered on the shore, and Lily and Ida were close enough to hear the cheers.

When she was just a couple hundred metres from the shore, Lily spotted Fiona trailing nearby in the boat and forgot about the swim. She decided she wanted her mom.

Fiona motioned for everyone on the shore to be quiet and then hid inside the boat. After a minute Lily forgot about her mom, turned, and swam to the beach. And when she could stand up, she reached for Ida who picked up Lily and carried her the final steps to the beach.

Lily Nay had crossed Kootenay Lake in just over an hour.

In the boat, Fiona marvelled at her daughter’s accomplishment. “I think I’m in shock,” she said. “You know your kid can do something, but can they really do it?”

Lily took off her wetsuit, wrapped herself in a towel and huddled with Ida who rubbed her back. The lake, she said, was just a big pool.

A big pool made small by a very special girl.

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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