Teen para swimmer finds home – and family – in Killer Whales swimming club

Since being discovered near a dumpster as an infant in China, Ian Ralston has had plenty of reason to feel he’s been left high and dry.

But he may finally have found a home — and a family — in the water.

Despite a debilitating and painful condition which makes even walking a daunting effort, the 15-year-old Carihi student has nonetheless found athletic success. One of the top para swimmers in B.C., Ralston is coming off a recent appearance in the Western Canada Summer Games and has his sights set on the Canadian Paralympic trials for the 2016 games in Brazil.

“My goals are to compete in the Pan-Am Games, the Commonwealth Games, the Canadian Nationals and the World Championships,” Ralston said with a grin that quickly appears every time he discusses swimming. “I want to do it all.”

Just a few short years ago, Ralston hardly wanted to do anything. Brought to Canada after his adoption in China by Roy Ralston and Linda Jay, the youngster struggled with the language and two club feet, which made him the butt of jokes among his new classmates.

“Kids have picked on me since I came to Canada,” said Ralston. “I didn’t speak the language. I looked different. They’d say, ‘Here comes the chicken-leg kid.’ It makes me feel self-conscious.”

In time, it also placed a substantial chip on his shoulder.

His parents enrolled him in gymnastics for a year after bringing him to Vancouver Island, and he later tried hockey — an experiment that was aborted after six months.

“That wasn’t working,” he said. “When it came to skating, I couldn’t keep up.”

Swimming offered more promise, after he was enrolled in a beginner program through Strathcona’s recreational program. Within his first six months he went from his first lesson to Level 4.

Eventually, Ralston joined the Campbell River Killer Whales swim team, but despite gradual improvement and some age-group success, it took him several years to overcome his lax attitude and occasional flights of rebellion.

“I was like, ‘Too hard; I’m out of here,'” said Ralston, who would periodically just climb out of the pool and walk away from practices.

When he didn’t, his disruptive behaviour often caused his coaches to throw up their hands in frustration and ask him to leave the pool, he said.

When former Canadian National Team swimmer Darryl Rudolph arrived to coach the Killer Whales three years ago, he recognized in Ralston a latent talent but also saw a troubled youngster that would need encouragement and, frankly, a little push if he intended to make a future in the sport.

“When I first got here, I was ready to quit,” said Rudolph. “And people were ready to say, ‘See ya.’

“But he stuck it out, worked on his attitude and applied himself to improving.”

In Rudolph and his wife, Sarah, who will join the coaching staff of the club this fall, Ralston found the cornerstone of a supportive network.

“With Darryl and Sarah, I got interested in staying for every practice, with no excuses,” he said. “The other swimmers and coaches encouraged me, and I started coming for the whole practice. My improved time (in the pool) became improved technique and speed.”

That technique — and speed — remain somewhat modified by his degenerative club foot condition. Ralston essentially swims using only his upper body. When his club teammates head outside to run in dry-land training, he gathers his stuff and hops on his bike to ride home.

“I don’t run any more,” he said. “And I walk only very short distances. My second-favourite thing after swimming is biking. I love being able to go places and love meeting other people.”

Orthopedists have told Ralston that the bones in his ankles are deteriorating at a rate that would require ankle and toe surgery by age 30 just to allow him to continue walking. Fortunately, he has managed to schedule a surgery for next spring that will involve moving a tendon from the back of his leg to the front, and which will allow him to wear a much smaller — and more comfortable — orthotic apparatus in his shoes.

Ironically, the surgery will immediately follow his competing in the Canadian Paralympic Trials, and will leave him in a wheelchair for five weeks before he embarks on physiotherapy. Even after the surgery, Ralston said, he will not be “normal”, and will continue to qualify to swim in the para category.

“His best shot at the Paralympic Games will probably be 2020,” said Rudolph. “But he’s earned the chance to compete in the trials next year, and it will be good for him to experience that level of competition. In Canada, swimming is not a high-profile sport, except every four years when it has its day in the sun.”

J.R. Rardon After living with a series of families in both China and Canada, 15-year-old Ian Ralston says he always feels at home in the swimming pool .
J.R. Rardon
After living with a series of families in both China and Canada, 15-year-old Ian Ralston says he always feels at home in the swimming pool .

And Ralston is finally beginning to enjoy some of those rays with the Killer Whales, after years of fighting back against the perception that he was an outsider without a place in his adoptive homeland.

“I look different; I walk different,” he said. “My attitude was horrible. It was challenging, fitting in with a group.

“But now I feel we’re a family. We spend half the year together; that’s more time than I spend with my family.”

In last year’s BC Summer Games, Ralston swam to five gold medals. Earlier this year, in the B.C. Short-course AAA championships in Surrey, he was the top qualifier in the province among para swimmers, earning the berth to the Western Canada Games and, in the process, bringing Rudolph in as the Team BC para swimming coach.

“He’s got enough ability that he’s probably going to be funded by Swimming Canada,” said Rudolph. “Right now, I’m mainly working on his attitude. But he’s very good-natured, very good-willed, and always wants to help out.”

When asked about his birth and early childhood, Ralston’s easy smile vanishes for a moment.

“I don’t know. There is no story,” he said, then promptly undermines that claim. “I was found by a garbage dump.”

As an infant, he said, he was discovered by police patrolling an unspecified community in China. Ralston becomes circumspect when asked about the international adoption orphanage he was placed in, except for one memory.

“There was a pond in the back that they let some of the kids swim in,” he said, the grin suddenly returning. “I don’t know why, but I always liked going there. I loved the feel of the water on my skin.

“It felt different. It felt good.”