Siobhan MacDonald pushing boundaries for disabled athletes

Multiple limb amputee’s life a story of resilience, giving back and positivity

Siobhan MacDonald is a second-year student at Queen’s.
Image supplied by: Supplied by Siobhan MacDonald
Siobhan MacDonald is a second-year student at Queen’s.

For Siobhan MacDonald, adapting to the world around her has been a constant aspect of her life. Born without her left arm above the elbow, right leg above the knee and with a partial right hand, MacDonald’s disability came as a surprise to both her family and doctors.

“It was a bit of a surprise … doctors did ultrasounds and stuff and had no idea,” MacDonald said. 

Since stepping foot in a sailboat for the first time at age six, sailing has taken MacDonald places she never thought possible. In 2013, MacDonald competed in her first Canada Summer Games in the 2.4mR race — her signature one person kneelboat sailing event. Since then, she’s participated in the 2014 IFDS World Para Sailing championships and 2016 Canadian 2.4mR championships. This summer, she was named Team Nova Scotia’s flag bearer at the Canada Summer Games and scored bronze in the 2.4mR event.

Alongside her individual accolades, MacDonald has found enormous success at Queen’s on the varsity sailing team. Currently in her second year, she takes up the position of skipper and is the only disabled sailor on the team. 

In her first season, Queen’s won gold at the Student Yachting World Cup and Canadian Intercollegiate Sailing championships. This success has spilled into this year’s season, with MacDonald and her team finishing first at the CICSA Mid-Winter Regatta in Florida this weekend.

But like anything, MacDonald had to start somewhere.

Despite her disability, she recalled how her parents, Brenda and Angus, never treated her differently because of it. While her condition required extra work to find comfortable prosthetic limbs and solutions to certain daily tasks, her parents refused to let her disability define her childhood. From the moment she learned to walk, MacDonald was thrown into every activity that was available to her.

“[My parents] didn’t hold back which I’m pretty lucky for,” MacDonald said.

After countless attempts at a wide array of sports, MacDonald found some activities would only allow her to do so much. With a hindered ability to perform certain movements, room for athletic progress proved difficult.

When MacDonald acquainted herself with sailing at age six, she met her match. It was a sport that satisfied her appetite for athletic competition. 

“It’s almost like I reached a point where that was as far as I could go,” MacDonald said, alluding to her experience with sports like soccer and basketball. 

“Sailing was kind of that thing where I hadn’t hit that barrier yet.”

MacDonald was raised in Mabou, Nova Scotia, a small town on the northern tip of the province home to 1,200 people. She said its tight-knit, welcoming community served as the perfect place to grow up.

“Growing up in a small town was probably the best thing for me because everyone knew me. I never really had to deal with people being uncomfortable,” MacDonald said of living with her disability.

Since she started sailing, MacDonald and her uncle have turned this quaint fishing town into a sailing hotspot for Nova Scotians. 

During her summers in Mabou, a single week would see a mobile sailing school roll into town, teaching residents how to sail for seven days. After seeing participation numbers explode each year, MacDonald, alongside her uncle and members of her family, set out to build Mabou’s first ever sailing club in 2012.

“[Sailing] just kept growing and growing until we built our own club with my family and my uncle,” MacDonald said.

Over the next year, MacDonald and her family would scrounge websites like Kijiji for used boats. At this time, they also built a small clubhouse near the water. By the summer of 2013, the Mabou Sailing and Boating Club opened its doors for the first time.

Since its inaugural summer, MacDonald has instructed the club’s young sailors, making herself instrumental to the club’s success. Registration numbers since its opening have only grown — the club instructs 80 kids over the course of eight weeks in the summer with demand continuously rising.

“It’s wicked,” MacDonald said. “We have a whole new sport and atmosphere to our town which is great.”

Although she’s been sailing since a young age, MacDonald has found her biggest success in the boat recently. It’s something she credits to her coach and 2008 Paralympic gold medalist Paul Tingley. 

MacDonald’s first big break came in 2012 when she caught the eyes of numerous Canadian para sailors who were looking for new Canadian sailing talent. Tingley noticed her talent on the water right away.

“She knew how to sail and how to enjoy herself sailing which is really the best thing,” Tingley said.

MacDonald (left) and Tingley (right).

Since going under Tingley’s instruction in 2012, MacDonald has improved at an unparalleled pace. Every experience — from the Canada Summer Games to the World Para Sailing Championships — has come during Tingley’s time with MacDonald. The coach said MacDonald’s ability to improve at this pace is something he rarely sees.

“She’s a sponge — she just wants to learn more and more and she really got it,” Tingley said. “That was really extraordinary.”

By the time grade 12 rolled around, MacDonald’s passion for sailing had turned into an obsession. With university applications starting up, she looked for ways to continue her career while pursuing an education. When Queen’s delivered their letter of acceptance in the spring of 2016 — alongside the Chancellor’s 

Scholarship — the choice for MacDonald was clear. Kingston was going to be her home for the next four years.

After a successful tryout in August of 2016, MacDonald made the Queen’s varsity sailing team.

Sailing, however, has changed MacDonald’s life in more ways than one. And it’s something her coach said shows right away. 

“Everyone loves Siobhan. It’s not hard to warm up to her, she’s great to be around. She’s positive, always smiling and seeing the good things,” Tingley said. 

But perhaps the most impressive of her characteristics is her seemingly perpetual positivity. Tingley, who has worked alongside her for six years now, is well aware of MacDonald’s unique outlook on life.

“I think she learned a lot about resilience and it gives you perspective. I’ve never seen her upset,” Tingley said. 

Although MacDonald’s positivity is something she’s aware of, she maintains things have always been that way for her. She largely credits her parents for this and knows she wouldn’t want to live any other way.

“I think my parents have a positive attitude that I’ve always adapted.” MacDonald said. “I think it’s the best way.”

Since being born with her disability, it’s clear that MacDonald has developed a life philosophy that has enabled her to see every challenge she’s faced in a positive light.

“You’re not going to get far if you’re always thinking negatively and I’ve been lucky that I’ve gotten so many experiences because I’m disabled,” MacDonald said.

“I think it’s one of my biggest assets.”


Paralympics, Sailing, Siobhan MacDonald

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