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 HarperIda 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 HarperNew 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 HarperIda 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 HarperIda 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 HarperA 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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Swimming

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Corey Harkness, who is free on bail, is slated to make his first appearance in B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops on Dec. 14, 2020. A trial date has not yet been set. (COREY HARKNESS/FACEBOOK)
Accused in Cache Creek homicide will stand trial

Corey Harkness, 33, is charged with second-degree murder

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
47 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health region

1,538 total cases, 399 are active, ten in hospital

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 65 new cases of COVID-19

Province-wide, there are 887 new cases of the virus

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 70 new cases overnight

The total number of cases in the region is now at 1,426

The TNRD will no longer be offering free disposal days at its 29 solid waste facilities throughout the region. (Photo credit: TNRD)
TNRD votes to end free disposal days at solid waste facilities

Mattresses and tires on rims to be added to items that can be brought in at no charge year-round

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Langley RCMP issued a $2,300 fine to the Riverside Calvary church in Langley in the 9600 block of 201 Street for holding an in-person service on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, despite a provincial COVID-19 related ban (Dan Ferguson/Black Press Media)
Langley church fined for holding in-person Sunday service

Calvary church was fined $2,300 for defying provincial order

A pedestrian makes their way through the snow in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Wild winter, drastic swings in store for Canada this year: Weather Network

In British Columbia and the Prairies, forecasters are calling for above-average snowfall levels

NDP Leader John Horgan, left, speaks as local candidate Ravi Kahlon listens during a campaign stop at Kahlon’s home in North Delta, B.C., on April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Top doctor urges Canadians to limit gatherings as ‘deeply concerning’ outbreaks continue

Canada’s active cases currently stand at 63,835, compared to 53,907 a week prior

A Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
B.C. care home looks to hire residents’ family members amid COVID-19-related staff shortage

Family would get paid as temporary workers, while having chance to see loved ones while wearing PPE

Most Read