Danielle Kisser is shining her light

Photo courtesy of Ron Sombilon

Despite challenges, Kisser has created a fulfilling swimming career for herself

Danielle Kisser had always been very athletic as a kid. Before she reached the age of 11, she had played basketball, soccer, softball, and even did horseback riding. However, around that age, she realized that she soon wouldn’t be able to keep up with her teammates and competitors because they were all getting taller, and she wasn’t.

Kisser has achondroplasia dwarfism — a bone growth disorder. The 26-year-old’s condition was diagnosed ever since she was eight months old.

Although she stopped practicing a lot of the sports she used to participate in at 11, she found a new passion: swimming.

In 2008, Kisser attended one of her brother’s swimming practices. After the team’s practice, her brother’s coach — who was involved with paralympic swimming — brought up the sport to her and suggested she attend practice. Although she initially disregarded the offer because “it wasn’t [her] thing,” she ended up attending and quickly started liking it.

“I was good at it,” Kisser said. “It gave me something else to do, a new challenge. Swimming was also something where I wasn’t getting left behind as I was on the soccer field or the basketball court, it was something that I could excel at.”

She also felt like she could be competitive and she liked racing against other people “just like [her].” 

Anyone who has a disability can participate in para-swimming, but there is a classification system with 14 levels to ensure athletes are competing against people who have similar abilities. Levels one through 10 are assigned to athletes with physical disabilities. Levels 11-13 are for those with visual impairments and level 14 is made up of people with intellectual disabilities. Kisser competes in the sixth level.

It took her two years to make her first national team. In her 15-year-long swimming career, she also got to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

“It was like a dream that I’d had for 13 years at the time,” she said. “It was my third time trying to make it and then finally it worked out. I made a final there with a relay.”

Nonetheless, competing without a cheering crowd due to COVID-19 restrictions was a strange experience for Kisser.

“The whole experience was crazy and racing in an empty stadium was a challenge,” she said. “But getting to fulfill [my dream] was all I could ask for.”

Swimming has been one of the most consistent things in Kisser’s life. Being this active and training up to 10 times a week has been beneficial for her.

“My health and well-being is just so much better now because of being fit and being able to walk for long periods of time,” she said. “A lot of people with dwarfism, they have back problems, knee problems, just like different body issues. But for me, being able to be so physically fit and active has been very helpful.”

For Kisser, being in the water also contributes to her mental well-being.

“It’s a place where it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, what you look like, or what people have said about you,” she said. “It’s just there and you get to decide what you do with it. For me, the water is there to support me if I just want to swim. It’s there to propel me forward.”

And forward she went. She was able to represent Canada in multiple international competitions.

“I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to pursue it for as long as I have,” Kisser said. “This led to so many cool opportunities. I’ve met some of my best friends swimming.”

But it also led to some of her biggest challenges. Kisser went through several injuries, concussions, and other hardships. Nonetheless, she said that it shaped her and that this experience remains her “greatest gift.”

Four years ago, Kisser also started her own YouTube channel, called This Little Light. As she was comfortable in front of cameras, she wanted to document her life and share her experiences. Recently, she has been documenting her swimming endeavours.

Mainly, she wants people to know that they all have a light to shine and an opportunity to make the world brighter.

“The way that I shine my light is by showing people what it is like to live with a disability, letting the young kids who have dwarfism know that life is going to be OK. This is what you can do,” she said.

After 15 fulfilling years of swimming, Kisser is now contemplating retirement, as she will also be graduating from Concordia University with a double major in linguistics and theology. She said she’s excited about life after swimming and taking the lessons she learned from her career elsewhere.

“I kind of checked all the things that I want to do,” she explained. “I’ve been to every major competition that you can go to and I’m satisfied. The biggest thing for me was realizing I didn’t need another Paralympics or another medal to feel like a better person.”

According to her former coach Mike Thompson, who is also the head coach of the national team, Kisser will have left a long-lasting mark on the team.

“She’s had such an influence and an impact on the national team, this centre, and the way we do things right now,” Thompson said. “I’m really impressed with where she’s at and happy with what I’ve been able to be a part of.”

Kisser is looking forward to revisiting all the sports she once loved as a kid, but one thing she will never stop doing is shining her light.

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