Meet the Match
A Swimmer Makes a Splash for Paralympic Sport in Estonia
Since she was a young girl in the Estonian capital of Talinn, Keit Jaanimagi understood the value of perseverance.
Born with spina bifida, Keit experienced mobility challenges from birth. As she grew older, she required surgery to correct an issue with her hips. Up until that point, Keit never felt as if she had been treated differently and excelled in school. After the surgery, she gained weight and suffered from increased hip and back pain. Recognizing the importance of physical activity for Keit’s rehabilitation, her mother quickly enrolled her in sports.
“My mom taught me never to give up even if things are really hard and uncomfortable,” Keit says. “I could sit in a wheelchair all day, but every day I learn more how being active gives me independence and makes me into a stronger person.”
Within three years of starting swim courses, Keit’s persistence led to a spot on Estonia’s national team and invites to compete in international swimming tournaments. Since 2004, she has participated in the International Paralympic Committee’s European and World Championships and twice medaled in the 4x50m medley relay at the Nordic Championships. Among her many honors, she was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Estonian Union of Sports for Disabled in 2006 and 2011.
“For me, swimming is not about medals,” Keit says. “It is about improving my health and being better than yesterday. Swimming has always been easier than walking for me. There is freedom in the pool.”
Keit will never forget competing in her first world championships and seeing so many great swimmers with disabilities gathered in one place. It changed the way she saw the world and motivated her to take a bigger role in the Paralympic movement. While working on her bachelor’s degree in English language and culture from Tallinn University’s Institute of Germanic-Romance Languages and Cultures, she received her coaching certifications and set out to become a disability sport leader in Estonia.
According to the Estonian Human Rights Centre, approximately 138,000 people with disabilities live in the country; many facing significant challenges, including a lack of access to sport. Aside from harsh winters that limit independent movement around cities, a lack of financial support for adaptive sports has resulted in inaccessible facilities, underdeveloped infrastructure, and few programs for children with disabilities. These challenges discourage people with disabilities from believing they can be active members of society.
“It gives the impression that sport is a luxury,” Keit says. “And it is. A person needs to be independent and have great willpower to continue on their own when there are so many challenges that make it hard to participate. But, I believe everyone should be able to play.”
On top of training in swimming six days a week, Keit works part-time as a project manager for the Estonian Paralympic Committee. In this role, she manages inclusion projects with partners, such as Tallinn University and rehabilitation centers. With a lack of properly-trained coaches and teachers at clubs and in public schools, Keit’s work with the university is particularly important. Right now, Estonia has few developed sports for people with disabilities: swimming, athletics, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair curling and showdown. From these disciplines, less than 60 athletes compete internationally.
“I want to learn more about inspiring people who are like me,” Keit says. “I want to give people the chance to experience what sport can offer—the emotion and excitement. Swimming is our most popular sports and there are only about 20 of us who compete internationally. I want to reach more people with this message of inclusion.”
As she worked on developing herself into a stronger and more influential leader, Keit sought the guidance of mentors with practical knowledge on how to catalyze and sustain a disability sport movement. At Lakeshore Foundation, she joined forces with Karin Korb, policy and public affairs coordinator, and Amy Rauworth, director of policy and public affairs and associate director of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability. Combined, these two disability sports experts have more than 30 years of experience as inclusion advocates, leading fitness and health initiatives and serving on influential national committees that promote physical activity for people with disabilities. Based at one of the United States’ most comprehensive adaptive sports facilities, Keit also learned in-depth about the cross-section of education and sport, disability policy, and running successful Paralympic programs.