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 Harper
New 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 Harper
Ida 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 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

Jordan Naterer, 25, was last seen Saturday Oct. 10. He planned a hike in the Manning Park area, and has not been seen since. Photo Facebook.
Family devastated as search for missing Manning Park hiker suspended

‘It was an extremely difficult meeting with the parents when we had to tell them.’

Advance voting is already underway in the 42nd general election in British Columbia. Election day is Oct. 24.(Black Press files photo)
QUIZ: Are you ready for the B.C. election?

Take this short test and see how much you know about elections and voting

Jordan Naterer, an electrical engineer from Vancouver, was last seen Saturday Oct. 10. Facebook photo.
‘Please pray for our son,’ says mother of missing hiker

Searchers continue efforts to find 25-year-old Vancouver man in Manning Park

(File photo)
BCCDC reports new COVID-19 case on Kelowna flight

WestJet flight 182 from Kelowna to Calgary had a case of COVID-19 on board Oct. 10

In this photo provided by Shannon Kiss, smoke from the CalWood Fire billows, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, as seen from Gunbarrel, Colo. (Shannon Kiss via AP)
‘First guys out:’ Western Canadian air tanker fleet busy despite drop in wildfires

CEO believes wildfires have become more dangerous in recent years as people live closer to where they start

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Fort St. John councillor Trevor Bolin (B.C. Conservative Party)
BC Conservatives leader fights back after BC Liberals leak 2018 workplace harassment case

Sexual harassment case was connected to employee being terminated, WorkSafeBC found

Employee Sophia Lovink shows off a bag of merchandise in Toronto on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Canada gets C-average grade on 2nd year of cannabis legalization

Cannabis Council of Canada releases report card on federal government and legalization

(Black Press Media files)
B.C. suburbs could see increased demand for rental units as people work from home

Vancouver’s average monthly rent is the highest out of 35 cities across Canada

The BC Ferries vessel the Queen of Oak Bay. (News Bulletin file photo)
‘Buy a boat,’ Horgan advises anti-maskers on BC Ferries

NDP leader John Horgan talks COVID-19 misinformation

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States are being extended until at least Nov. 21. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Non-essential travel restrictions at Canada-U.S. border extended to at least Nov. 21

The restrictions do not apply to those providing essential services in either country

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
UPDATE: Abandoned Kelowna heritage building fire deemed suspicious

The building sustained major fire damage to the exterior and roof area

Vernon Fire Rescue Services and Vernon-North Okanagan RCMP were called to a report of an electrical fire at the temporary shelter operated by Turning Points Collaborative Society on 37th Street Sunday, Oct. 18, just before 5:30 p.m. A fire was discovered in the building’s attic, forcing the evacuation of temporary residents and staff. (Roger Knox - Morning Star)
Reported electrical fire evacuates Okanagan temporary shelter

No visible smoke or flame but Vernon firefighters discover small blaze in former warehouse’s attic

Most Read