Lily and the lake: How a young B.C. girl with Down syndrome swam to her dream

Ida Jenss and Lily Nay swam across Kootenay Lake near Kaslo on Thursday. Photos: Tyler HarperIda Jenss and Lily Nay swam across Kootenay Lake near Kaslo on Thursday. Photos: Tyler Harper
New experiences are difficult for Lily, who needed some help hopping off the boat into the lake. Photos: Tyler HarperNew experiences are difficult for Lily, who needed some help hopping off the boat into the lake. Photos: Tyler Harper
Ida Jenss leads Lily at the mid-way point of the swim across Kootenay Lake. Photos: Tyler HarperIda Jenss leads Lily at the mid-way point of the swim across Kootenay Lake. Photos: Tyler Harper
Ida played games with Lily to keep her going and coaxed her with the promise of a good lunch. Photos: Tyler HarperIda played games with Lily to keep her going and coaxed her with the promise of a good lunch. Photos: Tyler Harper
A small group of friends cheer the pair on as they approach the end of their swim. Photos: Tyler HarperA small group of friends cheer the pair on as they approach the end of their swim. Photos: Tyler Harper

Lily Nay, a very special girl, woke up in a very foul mood.

Outside Lily’s window, an overcast sky had settled over her home in Kaslo. Light rain sprinkled the ground and wind ruffled leaves in the trees. The summer had, at least for the day, opted to stay in bed. Perhaps Lily would as well.

But instead she got up and had a hearty breakfast. And once she remembered what she had planned, Lily decided she wasn’t so grumpy after all.

For on this glum September morning, Lily Nay was going to swim across the Kootenay Lake.

If any 10 year old could swim the lake, it would be Lily. She swims every day. Because she was born with Down syndrome, Lily experiences hypotonia, or low muscle tone. Being in the water helps her core stay strong and lets her keep up with her friends. It also means Lily can do something her mother can’t.

When Fiona Nay learned she would have a daughter with Down syndrome, she was terrified. She thought her life would change in terrible ways, and cried for months after learning the news.

But there are 45,000 Canadians living with Down syndrome, according to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. As Fiona soon learned, they are capable of wonderful things like acting, athletics, art and, of course, swimming. The Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization lists Canadian Michael Qing among its world record holders. Special Olympics Canada’s swimming team includes Bobbi-Lynn Cleland, who has been competing for 30 years.

Lily’s first wonderful thing was learning to read at just two years old, well before many of her friends could. Her second was starting private lessons in the water at six or seven years old. Trips to the pool became a daily ritual for Lily.

Fiona can’t swim, not even a little. But when she watches her daughter in the water, she isn’t nervous for Lily’s safety. All she feels is pride.

“She’s just like a little dolphin, a little fish,” said Fiona.

Last year, Lily made a new friend. Ida Jenss moved to Kaslo from Germany to live with the family as an au pair.

Ida is 20 years old and a strong swimmer. So when the weather is good, and sometimes even when it isn’t, Lily and Ida start swimming at noon and don’t stop until it’s time for dinner.

Shortly after she arrived, Ida thought she might try swimming across Kootenay Lake. The lake is eight kilometres at its widest point, but only slightly less than a kilometre and a half across from the tip of Kaslo.

Ida’s idea became Lily’s goal. At first she was scared of the lake, which was open and intimidating compared to her pool. So Ida began taking Lily to the beach, and soon she had to keep Lily from swimming too far out.

Then, on the gloomy September morning when tourists abandoned the lake to fish and osprey, Lily put on her wetsuit and went to the water.

As a fishing boat approached the dock to pick up Fiona, Ida and Lily, she turned to her mother and asked, “We don’t have to turn around?”

“No,” replied Fiona. “No one is going to stop you.”

Lily turned back to face the lake and smiled. Today was at last the day.

This is the route Lily and Ida swam. Photo: Google Maps, Animation: Sandra Leonard.

When the boat arrived at the start point, Ida dove in the water and forced herself to smile for Lily who watched from the bow. The temperature was chilly and the waves made it difficult to tread water.

Lily had never jumped off a boat before. She suddenly wasn’t so sure this was a good idea.

“It’s too cold,” she said.

“No it isn’t,” fibbed Ida. “See? I’m in and I’m fine.”

“Lies, lies lies,” said Lily.

So she counted to three on her hands. One, two, three, and she jumped into Ida’s arms.

“It’s cold!” Lily cried, but she stayed with Ida anyway.

The pair paddled away from the boat and for a time didn’t swim. As she watched from the boat, Fiona wondered if today was indeed the day.

But then they began to play a game. Ida started swimming away while Lily pretended to be a shark, and later they swapped who was the hunter and who was the prey.

As Lily and Ida approached the halfway point, the sun peeked through the clouds and Fiona allowed herself to hope they would finish the swim. But in the water Lily’s attention wavered. She was getting tired and hungry.

Ida continued to coax her on with the promise of food. Lily is a big fan of food, especially pizza. There was pizza waiting for her on the other side, said Ida, and that encouraged Lily to keep swimming.

Meanwhile in Kaslo, word began to spread about the little girl with blonde French braids in the lake. A group of Lily’s friends gathered on the shore, and Lily and Ida were close enough to hear the cheers.

When she was just a couple hundred metres from the shore, Lily spotted Fiona trailing nearby in the boat and forgot about the swim. She decided she wanted her mom.

Fiona motioned for everyone on the shore to be quiet and then hid inside the boat. After a minute Lily forgot about her mom, turned, and swam to the beach. And when she could stand up, she reached for Ida who picked up Lily and carried her the final steps to the beach.

Lily Nay had crossed Kootenay Lake in just over an hour.

In the boat, Fiona marvelled at her daughter’s accomplishment. “I think I’m in shock,” she said. “You know your kid can do something, but can they really do it?”

Lily took off her wetsuit, wrapped herself in a towel and huddled with Ida who rubbed her back. The lake, she said, was just a big pool.

A big pool made small by a very special girl.

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Swimming

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Christopher Anthony Craig Dick is wanted by the Port Alberni RCMP in connection to multiple investigations. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
Vancouver Island RCMP seek man connected to assault investigations

Christopher Dick, 36, was recently in the North Cowichan and Duncan region

The Farm Table Inn is one of almost two dozen local restaurants and beverage producers participating in Tourism Cowichan’s “Sip, Savour, Support Cowichan” campaign. Pictured are owners George gates and Evelyn Koops. (Alec Wheeler photo)
Residents of the Cowichan Valley decorated more than 55 vehicles with anti-racist slogans for a car rally in support of Cowichan Tribes on Saturday, January 24. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Dozens join anti-racism car rally and virtual panel in Cowichan Valley

Provincial ministry and BC Green caucus issue joint statement detailing concerns

Island Health is expected to begin public consultations soon on its controversial plans to open a new wellness and recovery centre at 5878 York Road. (File photo)
Public consultations on Duncan wellness and recovery centre coming in February

Controversial facility on York Road scheduled to open in June

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

A woman wearing a protective face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Five big lessons experts say Canada should learn from COVID-19:

‘What should be done to reduce the harms the next time a virus arises?’ Disease control experts answer

A concrete seawall built to prevent erosion on a property on Driftwood Drive on Mudge Island. (Islands Trust image)
Appeal Court says Gulf Island homeowners’ seawall has to go

Court decides right to guard against erosion isn’t a ‘privileged’ property right

A Vancouver Police Department patch is seen on an officer’s uniform as she makes a phone call. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver man calls 911 to report his own stabbing, leading to arrest: police

Officers located the suspect a few blocks away. He was holding a bloody knife.

Vernon has agreed to a goose cull to control the over-populated invasive species making a muck of area parks and beaches. (Morning Star file photo)
Okanagan city pulls the trigger on goose cull

City asking neighbours to also help control over-population of geese

Members of the Saanich Fire Department can be seen working to put out a fire in the 4500-block of Chattertown Way on Jan. 26. (Saanich Fire/Twitter)
One cat killed, another resuscitated following blaze in Saanich townhouse

Neighbours evacuated following fire on Chatterton Way, third cat still missing

Tahsis mayor Martin Davis stands with an old-growth tree in McKelvie Creek Valley. The village of Tahsis signed a Letter of Understanding with forestry company Western Forest Products to establish McKelvie watershed as a protected area. Photo courtesy, TJ Watt.
Landmark deal expected to protect Tahsis watershed from logging

Tahsis and WFP agree on letter of understanding to preserve McKelvie Creek Valley within TFL 19

FILE – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his opening remarks at a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine CEO ‘very, very clear’ that Canada’s contracts will be honoured: Trudeau

Trudeau says he spoke to Moderna CEO on the morning of Jan. 26

Most Read