Ashley Cowan’s story is also more than just about an athletic feat. When she was just 18 months old, her limbs were amputated below the elbows and knees after she survived a near-fatal bout of meningitis. Her condition was initially diagnosed as a fever, but her mother, Shurlene, sought a second, and then a third opinion. Cowan was sent by ambulance to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and, on the way, her heart stopped for 15 minutes. By the time she was resuscitated by paramedics, gangrene had set into her limbs.
Her disability has not stopped her. Cowan competed as a figure skater until, at age 8, she watched news coverage of distance swimmer Vicki Keith crossing the Great Lakes. “I told my mother, ‘That’s what I’m going to do,’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Cowan says. “But I told her I’d prove her wrong.” It was a bold prediction, given that Cowan couldn’t even float at the time. “When she came to me, she couldn’t swim half the length of the pool,” says Keith, who has been her coach since 1994. “And yet there she was, saying she wanted to swim across the lake.” By December, 2000, Keith “saw something in her that told me she could do it.” And Cowan did, dipping into Lake Erie at Sturgeon Point, N.Y., on Sept. 7. With Keith paddling beside her in a kayak, Cowan emerged 20 km to the north at Crystal Beach, Ont., after battling currents and choppy water for 14 hours and 20 minutes.
The story doesn’t end there. Cowan launched her swim in an effort to raise money for Variety Village, a fitness facility designed for the disabled. Initially, her story didn’t get widespread attention. And money has been slow to filter in — only about $2,000 so far. But that total should grow. Last week’s Spirit of Sport award will help raise awareness of her efforts, as will subsequent interviews on several U.S. TV shows, including Larry King Live.
Though unused to the spotlight, Cowan showed great composure when she won — even if she didn’t feel it. “I wasn’t calm at all,” she insists. “I was shaking when I got on stage, and I made the mistake of looking at my mom. She was bawling her eyes out.” Still, Cowan kept it together, and that talent, combined with her growing fame, may help her in her long-range ambition. “I love music,” says the Grade 10 student, “and I want to be a singer.” Don’t bet against her.
To wit, to woo
At least we’re laughing at ourselves. The second annual April Fool’s Day poll conducted by The Comedy Network/Ipsos-Reid, found that 26 per cent of Canadians think Canada is the funniest country in the world, well ahead of Australia (15 per cent) and the U.S. (14 per cent). The majority of Canadians (71 per cent) also feel that our humour is more sophisticated than that of our neighbours to the south. Residents of Newfoundland and Labrador are most likely to make us howl, while Canadians feel that Prince Edward Islanders suffer the most from a lack of a funny bone. E