Sunset Water Sports fundraises to break down barriers

Merna Emara
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

For many in our region, summer is synonymous with water sports. However, this is not the case for disabled individuals. Many are forced to sit on the sidelines, unless they have access to specialized, adaptive equipment, at a premium cost. That’s why Shawna McRitchie and Mar Fraczkiewicz, owners of Sunset Water Sports, have launched fundraisers to bridge that gap, and get everyone out on the lake, through the purchase of adaptive water sports equipment.
Adaptive water sports are programs that provide accessible water sports and recreational activities, such as swimming and water skiing, for individuals with limitations. These activities can be helpful for health, wellness, and social benefits.
Fraczkiewicz is a certified adaptive water sports trainer from Water Ski and Wakeboard Canada. During the training course, Fraczkiewicz said he worked with individuals paralyzed from the waist down.
“When you see people light up that have been told they will never do anything like this, it is absolutely amazing,” Fraczkiewicz said “I love working with all people, it does not matter if they have limitations or not.”
This is the fourth summer that Sunset Water Sports has been operating in Fort Frances. The club includes activities such as water-skiing, lake skiing, knee boarding, waterboarding and tubing. They also hold scenic tours, boat rides and public events. With a growing demand for adaptive water sports equipment, Fraczkiewicz and McRitchie said they are working towards getting everyone in the water.
“Feeling the sun and the breeze on your face is very sensory and stimulating,” McRitchie said. “Our body craves sensory experiences and water is very calming and therapeutic. We as human beings are attracted to water. It’s just something genetically built into us. The sound of it, the smell of it and the texture of it is a full body experience especially for children with sensory issues that are on the autism spectrum.”
Unfortunately, with the lack of proper equipment, this is not something everyone gets to experience. Elizabeth Logue, an activation worker at Rainy Crest Long Term Care, said she sees people every day with limited mobility.
“Many residents grew up on Rainy Lake with all its beauty and would love to relive those memories,” Logue said. “Making it a reality with beach wheelchairs is exactly what Fort Frances needs.”
The program has already attracted considerable interest. McRitchie said more than 100 people have expressed interest in using adaptive water sports equipment. But with the closest adaptive water sports schools being in Sioux St. Marie, Saskatoon and Atlanta, Georgia, having adaptive equipment in Fort Frances will open up the possibility for individuals in Ontario, Manitoba and Minnesota to utilize the programs, McRitchie said.
“When my business partner was doing his training, he talked to several people who are willing to bus people up here or fly people out here so that they would be able to utilize our programs because there just isn’t anything like this around you,” McRitchie said. “But the numbers we have would grow greatly both provincially and nationally if we had the equipment.”
Fort Frances native Nicole LePine, 22, is looking forward to hitting the waves. She suffered a massive stroke four years ago. Adaptive water sports would give her the chance to do the things she loves and never thought she would be able to do again.
“When I had my stroke, I pretty much convinced myself I would never do those kinds of activities again,” LePine said in an email. “Two winters ago, I tried downhill skiing and it’s brought so much joy and I know this program will too!”
“I know this program will help people along with the community because it will show the community that people with disabilities are able. It gives people with a disability a reason to be out in the community,” LePine said. “I think this program can and will be beneficial to everyone.”
Jolene Richert is the Metis Family Wellbeing Coordinator and a volunteer for Sunset Water Sports who helped fundraise by starting a GoFundMe page. You can access the page by searching “Sunset watersports Fort Frances”. The mission is to create an adaptive watersports community of support and friendship among veterans, differently abled adults and children, family members, and volunteers to empower, inspire, and enrich the lives of everyone involved, according to the GoFundMe page.
“I think it is amazing that they are wanting to bring adaptive water sports to our area. Being able to remove those barriers and allow anyone to get in and/or behind the boat would be such an amazing and unique opportunity for so many people,” Richert said in an email. “I hope to be able to be a part of helping once this takes off. I can’t wait to see the joy in people’s eyes when they get to do something they didn’t think they would have the chance to do.”
Richert said she started off by going to the lake with her daughters because they love tubing.
“Although my daughter has a condition with her leg, she needed assistance mainly with her anxiety of trying something new, Richert said. “Everyone [at Sunset Water Sports] is great for making the participants comfortable while working with their skill level and abilities. Mar was always able to calm her fears and make it a pleasant experience for her.”
Having adaptive water sports equipment also increases the chances for children to benefit from hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy is the use of water to maintain health or as a form of treatment. This is attributed to the properties of water that include helping blood flow, dissolving minerals and salts and the soothing and calming effect water has on the skin.
McRitchie said they are trying to purchase specialized equipment for the individuals to meet their needs. There is an equipment called sit skies that the individual will fit in. These are seats attached to either the boards or water skis and then we have two helpers. This allows individuals to be able to water ski or wakeboard while sitting in this seat.
“We are also purchasing floating wheelchairs,” McRitchie said. “It looks like a lounge chair, with floating systems on it. So, an individual with reduced or limited mobility who doesn’t have the abilities to be able to swim can get into this and we can transport them into the wheelchair and then go from the shore to the water and they’ll be able to swim.”
A sit ski costs about $3,500; a beach wheelchair costs $2,000 and a floater costs $1,000, adding to a total of about $7,000 just for these three pieces of equipment.
There are currently three different fundraising options to support the new initiative to purchase adaptive sports equipment. The first one is through buying books online. With each book sold, 20 per cent will go to the program. There is also a bottle and can drive. For more information on how to participate in the book sale or bottle drive, visit Sunset Water Sports on Facebook, or call them at 275-7747. To donate to the GoFundMe drive, search “Sunset watersports Fort Frances.”