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Blind Paralympian teams up with scent-trailing dog to find missing people

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SAANICH, B.C. — Long before Jessica Tuomela partnered with her dog on a life-saving mission, she was a kid who couldn’t be contained.

“I always wanted to challenge myself,” Jessica says. “And see how far I could push things.”

Although she couldn’t see — after being blinded by retina cancer when she was three — Jessica fearlessly pushed herself to accomplish all the things others said she couldn’t.

“I would get really good at achieving something,” Jessica laughs. “And then be like, ‘Cool! What’s next?!’”

But then Jessica turned 16 and realized there was a milestone she’d never reach.

“I was watching all my friends get their licenses, driving around with the windows open and the radio playing,” Jessica says. “It was really, really hard.”

It was an emotional blow that Jessica learned to overcome by making a positive choice.

“Find something that’s better,” Jessica advises, before laughing. “I got a guide dog!”

At the same time, Jessica was training to be the best swimmer she could. She competed in three Paralympic Games — and won silver — before choosing to up the ante and become a triathlete. 

“Why do one sport when you can do three?” Jessica asks with a laugh.

Jessica had to not just learn to run for the first time, but do it in tandem with a sighted partner giving directions, before mastering how to cycle in tandem, too.

“Riding around the corner at 70 km/h feels so good!” Jessica smiles.

But then her second Paralympics as a triathlete was postponed by the pandemic, and Jessica started searching for a new challenge.

“I discovered discriminate scent trailing,” Jessica says. “And I was like, ‘Whoo!’”

So Jessica contacted the US-based ‘Scent Evidence K9’ and was teamed up with Lucy, a dog trained to search for missing people, before launching her own rescue company ‘True North K9’.

“It gets me to work with a dog, which I absolutely love. It also helps me help other people, which is another passion of mine,” Jessica says. “Why wouldn’t I do that?”

The dynamic duo’s skills were put to the test a few weeks ago, after an 89-year-old with dementia went missing. Jessica and Lucy searched for three kilometres before Lucy stopped on the other side of a forest and launched herself into a lake.

“I felt my heart just sank. Is this going to be a recovery?” Jessica recalls thinking. “We got into the water and then someone starts very happily talking to Lucy. Turns out it’s the right person.”

Jessica says the feeling of returning a person home safely has no comparison, not even winning on the world stage.

“Find what fuels you,” Jessica says. “And do it for the right reasons.”

And whether she’s inspiring athletes to overcome adversity, or offering the skills to find missing people, Jessica says the right reason for her is helping others.

“Leaving this world a better place is really important to me.” Jessica smiles.

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