“I have a lot of pride to be representing my country but I’m very nervous too and glad to be here."
Bermuda’s Jessica Cooper Lewis will make history on Wednesday (16 November) when she becomes the first ever track and field athlete to represent Bermuda at a major para-sport Championships when she lines up for the 100m T53 at the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
If that was not nerve tingling enough for the 18 year old from Pembroke, then she will also be Bermuda’s flag bearer at Saturday’s Opening Ceremony as she is her country’s sole representative at the Games which has attracted 1,500 athletes from 23 countries.
Far from being fazed at competing in such a major event, Lewis is instead seeing it as an opportunity to change Bermuda, an island of just 65,000 inhabitants located in the North Atlantic Ocean.
“I feel very honoured and just feel glad to have made it here as I’ve worked very, very hard,” she said speaking with the composure of a Paralympic veteran, rather than someone just about to make their major Championship debut.
“Bermuda is not really looking forward to people with a disability, we’re trying to change it and I just want to show Bermudans what people with a disability can achieve here in Mexico.”
Despite her teenage years, and the fact she is carrying the hopes of a nation on her shoulders, Lewis has the potential to win a medal in Guadalajara.
Of the athletes competing, just the USA’s Chelsea McClammer is ahead of her in the 100m world rankings, whilst she also stands a good chance of doing well in the 200m and 400m.
Although a podium finish would be a fairytale experience for Lewis, her dream is to compete at London 2012 and become only the third athlete from Bermuda to compete at a Paralympic Games, following in the footsteps of Kirsty Anderson and Sandy Mitchell who both competed in Equestrian.
If she goes to London next year then it will be her second Paralympics, although her first as a competitor. In 2008 she was in Beijing as part of a ‘Future Paralympians’ initiative which aimed to inspire young athletes to try make the next Paralympic Games.
And inspire her it has.
Lewis is just outside the London 2012 A qualification standard for the 100m, and is close to achieving the B standard in the 200m and 400m.
Should she make London, then it is not just the Beijing experience three years ago that should take all the credit, but also American Anjali Forber Pratt, the athlete Lewis says was her inspiration for taking up wheelchair racing in the first place four years ago.
“We had an Expo in Bermuda which involved many different sports. I considered team sports, but as there are not many people with a disability playing sports in Bermuda I felt I had to go for an individual sport.
“Anjali came down for the Expo and since then she has been an inspiration to me. She’s in the same classification as I am so we’ve been racing with each other.
“She’s just a real inspiration to everybody. She’s always pushing me to do better and helping me out. It really encourages me.”
In preparation for the Parapan American Games, Lewis has been training seven days a week whilst also finding time to study at Brock University in Canada.
Her fellow students have wished her the very best of luck for the Parapans as have the media in Bermuda, so much so that her races may potentially be shown on TV back home.
“I have a lot of pride to be representing my country but I’m very nervous too and glad to be here,” she said.
Should Lewis get a podium place during her time in Guadalajara then there will be no more popular or inspirational medal winner.
Around 340 athletes will take part in the track and field events at the 2011 Parapan American Games competing in over 80 medals events. The first day of competition is on Monday in the newly built Telmex Athletics Stadium.