Star swimmer finds home with Steadward Bears

As the only exclusively para swim club in the province, the Bears provide athletes like Connor Bissett with opportunities to thrive — in the water and beyond.

Connor Bissett

Para swimmer Connor Bissett has grown as both an athlete and a person during his time with the Steadward Bears, who will be hitting the pool soon for their annual Going the Distance fundraiser. (Photo: Supplied)

Connor Bissett has loved the water since he was a child. His mother, Margo Bissett, had him in swimming lessons by age five, and recalls how the prank-loving youth used to sit happily at the bottom of the pool, panicking the lifeguards. The pool was a place Connor, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, could thrive. 

“I think it was just the pressure of the water. When he’s in the water, he’s more relaxed, and it just meets all his sensory needs for some reason,” says Bissett. 

Swimming quickly became an integral part of his life, and remains so to this day. Though he always felt at home in the water, it wasn’t until his teenage years that he found a second home at The Steadward Centre for Personal & Physical Achievement as a member of the Steadward Bears para swim team. 

The Bears are the only exclusively para swim club in Alberta, which provides the athletes with a unique experience tailored to their specific needs. 

“It’s a chance for athletes to really connect with one another, to have coaches who have specialized knowledge and information, and just to have that really welcoming environment,” says Jennifer Leo, director of The Steadward Centre. 

“I think because it’s exclusively para and that’s our focus, it’s given me as a coach the tools to provide what they need to reach their full potential as athletes,” says head coach Laura Harvey.

When Connor first started swimming with the team, the Bissett family was living in Whitecourt. Connor and Margo drove into Edmonton for pool time every week, and then 16-year-old Connor was with his Bears teammates when he competed at his first Special Olympics trials. 

He followed the Bears’ former head para swim coach, Nathan Kindrachuk, to swim with a non-disabled team at the Olympian Swim Club for a period before eventually returning to rejoin the Bears. Under Harvey’s leadership, Connor, now 22, trains in the pool where so many of his teenage swim milestones occurred.

It isn’t only Connor’s swim times that have improved over the years, according to Margo. The team dynamic, both as a part of the Bears and when he’s on the road competing at the Special Olympics, have been invaluable to his growth as a person. Margo credits it with helping bring him out of his shell.

“He’s got more confidence in the pool, more confidence on deck,” she says.

Harvey, who was brought on in September 2022 as the swim team’s first full-time coach, has relished the opportunity to witness Connor’s growth first-hand as the duo cultivate their own athlete-coach connection. 

“He’s a man of few words, but the more I get to know him, the easier it is to communicate with him. We’re building a trust with each other, and that’s been important in his journey,” says Harvey.

“I’m here to delve in and find out exactly what he needs and give him those opportunities. He’s had a really successful year so far.”

He’s a man of few words, but the more I get to know him, the easier it is to communicate with him. We’re building a trust with each other, and that’s been important in his journey.

Laura Harvey, Steadward Bears head coach

Laura Harvey and Connor Bissett
(Photo: Supplied)

Harvey is growing the competitive program, guiding swimmers like Connor who are ready to compete at the national or even international level. She also started a program for competitive swimmers aged 12 and under, which didn’t previously exist at The Steadward Centre. According to Harvey, this helps build a foundation for the competitive program, as swimmers who start at an early age like Connor and have an interest in swimming competitively can begin refining their skills in the water. 

Harvey also introduced a Learn to Swim program that targets swimmers who simply want to swim recreationally, without any competitive element. Classes in the program filled up immediately, and it has been a huge success.

“We’re creating an overall program that allows for all individuals with disabilities to participate, depending on whether they want to go to the Olympics or learn how to float on their back,” says Harvey. “It’s really inclusive to absolutely everyone.”

According to Margo, swimming will always be an important part of Connor’s life. It has helped him develop a wide variety of life skills and an increased level of comfort functioning independently. 

Connor continues to travel the world for competitions, but there’s one particular goal he has his sights on right now — to make a Swimming Canada national team and compete for his country. He’s chasing that dream with all the hours spent in the pool training with Harvey, her assistant coaches and his fellow teammates. 

Before they head out to their next competition, members of the Steadward Bears will be hitting the pool for The Steadward Centre’s annual Going the Distance fundraiser. The event was put on pause for several years due to COVID, with a virtual version taking place in 2021, and it will return on April 22 with a packed program designed to appeal to athletes as well as the wider community. 

Funds raised will go toward necessities like pool rental fees, equipment for training, travel for competitions and registration fees to ensure financial barriers don’t prevent any athletes from accessing opportunities. In particular, Harvey says the club is looking to purchase a new lift so the pool will become more accessible for swimmers who use wheelchairs. 

“It feels like an exciting celebration of the para swim program overall,” says Leo.

Margo will be cheering Connor on from the sidelines, and she hopes others will recognize the transformative power of athletics as well as the positive impact they can have for all involved. 

“I just think everyone should find a sport that they love, and The Steadward Centre offers everything for people with disabilities of any sort.”