Injured in an airshow crash at the age of six, Tammy Cunnington rose above physical limitations to become a world-class athlete bound for the 2016 Paralympic Games.
But once in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Deer swimmer faced heartbreak as illness dashed her medal hopes. She did much soul-searching about whether to continue in the sport.
With such an epic life journey, it was only a matter of time before Cunnington became the subject of a documentary film. Now, Rueben Tschetter’s The Cache Project has made one.
His 22-minute Power on Water, produced by the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, will be screened Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. at Carnival Cinema as part of the Central Alberta Film Festival. It’s been nominated for best documentary short.
Tschetter is “thrilled” with this tribute, saying “I love telling these kinds of stories.”
The local filmmaker had heard about Cunnington through museum director Lorna Johnson, who was impressed by the local swimmer’s perseverance and passion for sport, and commissioned a short film about her for the Remarkable Red Deer exhibit.
Cunnington’s “cool” can-do attitude about life — even when things don’t turn out as hoped for — also ended up inspiring Tschetter.
He qualifies: “This is not a hero film,” where personal effort pays off, big time.
“This is about somebody who has to get up, put a lot of effort in and keep trying… and in that sense, we’re all heroes…”
While Cunnington finds it hard to observe herself on screen, uncritically, she feels Power on Water succeeds in showing “where dedication can take you.”
The swimmer lives by the mantra: “You don’t let your dreams go. Maybe you find new dreams, or maybe you just keep working at it…”
With the help of family photographs, Tschetter’s short documentary recounts Cunnington getting struck by a crash-landing aircraft at the Ponoka airshow in 1982. She was left a paraplegic, with only the full use of her right arm, core and shoulders.
Yet, raised in a sports-minded family, Cunnington did the therapy and trained to become a champion wheelchair basketball player and para-triathlete.
When her category in these sports wasn’t included in the Rio Paralympics, her triathlon swim coach suggested she switch it up to compete internationally as a swimmer.
That’s how, at the age of 40, Cunnington turned her single-minded focus on getting to Rio. “I thought it would be my last shot at competing in the Paralympics,” she recalled.
Tschetter wanted to capture her perseverance against the odds: “Two years prior to the games in Rio, she didn’t know how to swim butterfly or freestyle,” he noted.
Yet by 2015, Cunnington had earned triple medals at the Parapan American Games in Toronto and seventh place in the 50-metre freestyle at the world championships. She also posted four personal bests at the 2016 Canadian para-swimming trials.
While Power on Water tells of how a lung infection curtailed a storybook ending to her Rio Paralympics, the now 43-year-old is still in training, hoping to get to Tokyo in 2020.
The film can also be viewed on demand at Red Deer museum during gallery hours and on The Cache Project website.