Born into one of southwestern Ontario’s most storied sporting families, Mackenzie Siddall is a long-limbed lefty who, buoyed by undeniable talent and an indefatigable attitude, walked on to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds varsity softball team. Inspired always by the indissoluble bond she shares with her late brother, Siddall grew in stature within the squad, eventually closing out her collegiate career by captaining her teammates into the Cascadian regional playoffs.
This is a stirring, but mostly ordinary narrative, save for one significant detail: Mackenzie has amelia, the congenital absence or partial absence of a limb—she was born without a right hand.
Today, Siddall’s physical difference disappears into the summer night sky as she glides out atop Lake St. Clair.
Now settled back in Essex County after four years in the Pacific Northwest, Siddall is spending her summer with Urban Surf Co., a Tecumseh outfit that offers stand-up paddle boarding among various other water- and land-based fitness classes. She’s been with the company since its first summer of business, in 2013. Originally a counsellor for youth summer camps, Siddall is now something of a multitool player during the busy warm-weather months. On any given shift, you’re as likely to find her helping clients launch watercraft down at the docks as you are to find her behind the counter in the company’s onsite smoothie shop.
On nights like tonight, two or three of them a week, she teaches the flagship sunset paddle boarding class, during which she steers intrepid participants towards one of the most striking views you’re likely to encounter in our part of the world.
Only in this light is Siddall a captain, now: she completed a pair of intersession courses this June to tie a bow on her career as an undergraduate student-athlete. She graduates with a Bachelor of Kinesiology.
As Siddall charts a course for the next phase of her life, she has taken to paddle boarding to carve out space for her own thoughts as she slices winding lines in the water from Lakeview Marina. Siddall was first introduced to the sport by a fitness trainer six summers ago; she still gets out on the water off the clock as often as she can.
“We went out one morning…and I fell in love,” Siddall recalls. “I love being on the water. It’s a great workout, and it’s also relaxing. I love socializing and meeting new people and giving them an experience they’ll remember.”
The DRIVE won’t be forgetting about Mackenzie Siddall anytime soon. We caught up with her this summer in between the final hours of her collegiate career and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Thailand. As it turns out, she’s living what looks a lot like her best life happily, healthily and—against all odds—entirely normally.
The easiest way to articulate Siddall’s story is in fairly familiar terms: here we have a charismatic, hardworking heroine who’s risen from a disadvantaged position to overcome a great obstacle. In a clear, clinical sense, Siddall is a person living with a disability. This diagnosis is accurate, but it is not true.
“I don’t really see [my story] as overcoming something,” Siddall clarifies. “I think it would be really different if something happened to me, and then I had to adjust. But this is all I’ve ever known…it’s just who I am.”
The fact is, while she admits to the occasional inconvenience—say, learning to tie her shoes, putting her hair in a ponytail or surreptitiously scooping ice cream in her sister’s borrowed shirt—Siddall’s unique body imposes very few limits on her everyday life. From time to time, she’ll catch a stranger looking at her for a curiously long time and forget why that might be.
Entirely unsurprisingly, Siddall is a very easy person with whom to speak. Not far out of her teenage years, she wears a broad, rarely retreating smile and an infectious air of millennial enthusiasm. You probably know the type. Siddall’s unyielding positivity comes across even at the sentence level. Her conversation is peppered with yas and for sures, and she might drop three or four awesomes and a couple it’s funnys into a single coherent thought.
While it’s tempting to plot out Siddall’s softball career along a grand narrative arc, the fine details tend to get in the way. There’s a version of the story in which she never played a minute of meaningful collegiate sport.
A product of Holy Names High School, Siddall excelled in both baseball and hockey in her youth. Her junior career highlight was a national championship in novice girls’ softball as part of a Windsor Lady Expos team coached by her mother, Tamara. Unrecruited out of high school and unconnected to the British Columbia baseball world, Siddall made the Thunderbirds as a freshman walk-on.
Siddall’s decision to attend UBC in the first place was not quite impulsive, but it certainly constituted a minor leap of faith. The first time she set foot on British Columbian soil, her initial tuition deposit had already been withdrawn. Although she had applied to and was accepted by a small handful of Ontario universities, there was just something undeniable about the great Vancouver unknown.
Siddall boarded a plane for BC with both her softball and hockey gear in tow—just in case. “I think softball just came first,” she says plainly. “I was like, I’m going to go to school here, and oh, they have a softball team. It would be really cool to play. I got in contact with the coach, and it all worked out.”
Unusually, UBC’s softball team plays in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Cascade Collegiate Conference, in which it competes against schools from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. (The team’s uncommonly long bus trips to games on the road left no shortage of team bonding time.)
In Siddall’s rookie 2015 season, the Thunderbirds limped to a 14-27 record. She leaves the team after a respectable 19-23 campaign built around a winning 14-13 season in conference play. On the back of that finish, the Thunderbirds reached the postseason Cascade Collegiate Conference Tournament in Ashland, Oregon, where they advanced to elimination play before falling to Eastern Oregon 3-2.
“It was such an amazing experience,” Siddall shares. “We ended on a good note. It was nice, actually, being on the team for four years and seeing the progression every year, doing a little bit better.”
In a conventional sense, Siddall is far from a superstar. The stat sheets tell the story: An outfielder, Siddall appeared in 30 games this season, 27 of which she started. Her .205 batting average was the ninth highest on the team. Normal numbers.
In the language of baseball scouting reports, Siddall’s mechanics are undeniably interesting. Out of necessity, she wears her glove on her throwing hand, adroitly removing and transferring it to her right side in a fluid, fleeting motion. At the plate, Siddall can exercise some degree of grip on the bat with her right hand, but she effectively finishes her swings one-handed. How does one learn how to do that? In her own words, these effectively uncoachable skills can be attributed mostly to muscle memory.
“I honestly don’t know how I learned to [play with one hand],” she admits. “It must have been at a young age, when I started playing, that I realized I needed to take my glove off and go to my other hand…I don’t know how that process fully happened. I forget that I take my glove off and throw. It’s just second nature to me. There are certain drills in practice that the girls are doing, where it’s like, Oh, that doesn’t really work for me, so I have to try something else out. I’ve always taught myself things and worked my way through.”
It’s an obvious inference to make, but it’s hard not to note that Siddall’s body would have posed her many fewer problems on a soccer pitch. With her trim and powerful five-foot-six frame, you get the sense the spritely Siddall would have enjoyed a comparatively direct pathway to athletic prosperity has she opted for the beautiful game.
“That’s a joke everyone says!” Siddall volunteers. ‘You’d think your parents would have put you in soccer.’ I don’t know if it’s because I like a challenge, or what…but I love softball, and I loved hockey.”
For a baseball fan of a certain vintage, it’s difficult to talk about Mackenzie Siddall without thinking about Jim Abbott. Despite having been born missing a right hand, Abbott won a gold medal in baseball (then a demonstration sport) at the 1988 Summer Olympics en route to a 10-year career as a Major League pitcher. Imagine: an athlete competing in a specific sport at a high level despite a particular physical difference that would seemingly preclude their participation entirely. And that person happens to have a near-exact analogue at the professional level. But this appraisal is altogether too tidy; Siddall shrugs off the comparison.
“People ask me about him, [but] I honestly don’t know a ton about him,” she relates. “I remember doing a project about him in grade school…Just like, Oh wow, that’s so cool. I was just intrigued, but I didn’t take too much from it.”
You wonder, though, if Siddall might fill that role for any up-and-coming ballplayers in a similar situation. “I think [it happens] a little bit,” she relates. “I think a lot of times I motivate or inspire people without even knowing that I am. I don’t find it a responsibility…but I love hearing those stories. Me living my day-to-day life is inspiring people and motivating people? That’s amazing. It’s an opportunity.”
After gracing the cover of the Thunderbirds’ media guide this season, Siddall began to attract a bit more of this type of attention. “Some of the younger girls on various teams [in the area] came to watch us play,” she recalls, “and they were so excited to meet me afterwards. But I didn’t know that [at the time]. One of my friends said to me, ‘You know, you’re literally hanging in her bedroom.’”
This sort of poster-worthy profile is increasingly becoming part of Siddall’s life. Recently, after a national media outlet aired a video package about her, Siddall received a Facebook message from a viewer whose daughter would soon be playing at a softball tournament in Alberta. Inspired by the story, she invited Siddall to fly out and speak at the competition’s banquet. She gladly accepted.
“It was awesome,” Siddall enthuses. “I loved it. Right away I started talking about how I was born. Because in my video, a lot of it was about that: Playing softball with one hand…I kind of just went through my ‘journey,’ I guess.”
You can hear the quotation marks in Siddall’s voice. It’s endearing, the way in which she feels a genuine need to clarify why her audience might have expected her to speak about her physical difference. In Siddall’s mind, that wouldn’t have been a given.
She plans on doing more public speaking going forward, which is a good ambition to have; as any erstwhile competitive youth athlete knows all too well, a post–practice schedule life calls for some reorganizing. Freed of so many obligations, you find a void needing filling.
“I always come home for the summer, so I think right now, that’s where my mind is,” she offers. “I still don’t think it’s completely hit me that I’m not on this team anymore. It’s definitely bittersweet, especially being away and moving home now—and not having a return flight!”
“I love fitness and being athletic,” she continues, “so I think the hardest part will just be not being on a team. I go to the gym, and I spin, and I play tennis with my mom, but [I’ll miss] having that team bond. I think it will be an adjustment, but I’m excited for the future. I know sports will always be a part of my life. When you have other things to look forward to, it kind of helps a little bit.”
Those other things include further schooling: Siddall starts a 14-month MBA program at the University of Windsor in September. She’s unsurprisingly attracted to the idea of working in sports in some capacity, but the business side of healthcare holds a competing allure.
“Family friends had been talking to my sister about it, and then I started to think about it,” says Siddall about her next degree. “I mean, it’s great to have! I thought, Why not? It’s something to do to further my education, and I’m hoping that it will kind of open some doors for me.”
As she enters the next act of her life, Siddall invariably counts on the support of her parents, Joe and Tamara.
Joe appeared in 73 Major League Baseball games across parts of four seasons with the Expos, Marlins and Tigers during his 13-year career as a professional. Widely held as one of Essex County’s greatest ever ballplayers, he’s now best known as a colour commentator for the Toronto Blue Jays. After four years flanking Jerry Howarth on the club’s radio broadcasts, Joe stepped up to the Blue Jays Central television crew this season.
“When we were younger, [baseball] was always on the TV, and my dad would give a running commentary,” Mackenzie recalls. “So, we loved the Tigers growing up. Then, when he started working for the Blue Jays, I liked the Blue Jays. But that was when I went away to university, and as a university student I didn’t have cable.”
Does she like her dad’s new line of work? “I don’t find it that weird,” says Siddall. “It’s actually hilarious. I’ll go out for dinner with my friends, and he’s on their TV and it’s like, Oh, hey, Dad! We’re having dinner together. I think it’s cool. I’m happy for him. He’s doing a good job, and he’s loving it.”
Although somewhat less of a household name, Tamara is at least equally accomplished. A general practitioner, she works for the Teen Health Centre and contributes to Cancer Care Ontario while running her family’s Windsor household for most of the year.
“My parents are our rocks in this family,” Mackenzie stresses. “They’re amazing people, and they definitely inspire me every day to keep living, keep moving forward. They’re so passionate, dedicated and determined in what they do, and I think they’ve kind of moulded us into those types of people, too. I can’t thank them enough for giving us an amazing life.”
The Siddall family’s obvious internal bond was hardened in 2014 in the midst of almost unspeakable circumstances: Mackenzie’s brother Kevin died at the age of 14 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—blood cancer. The youngest of the four Siddall children, he was closest to Mackenzie in age, followed by Brett and Brooke.
Daniella Czudner, an English teacher at Holy Names, has crossed paths in one way or another with the entire Siddall clan. While she was always familiar with the family (“I knew them because they are sort of like Windsor royalty,” she explains), the relationship took on significantly more consequence when Czudner endured her own encounter with cancer. She was diagnosed in June 2013, only a few months before Kevin.
Already bald and deep into treatment, Czudner came to serve as an exemplar of strength and dignity in the face of incredible illness for both Kevin and Mackenzie, who took some time off from school near the end of her brother’s life.
Eventually, Mackenzie all but moved into her brother’s hospital room, refashioning it into what Czudner recalls was "a bit of a dorm.”
The description fits in terms of both style and function: With Mackenzie sliding in to an impromptu tutoring position, Kevin was remarkably able to complete the requirements of his first four high school courses from his hospital bed. “She was the hospital room TA!” suggests Czudner. “Mackenzie was an incredible source of support for her brother. Her head was like it always is: solid, clean and focused.”
In the years that followed, Siddall publicly and proudly used her brother’s life as motivation during her twinned academic and athletic careers. Today, it’s evident Kevin’s presence continues to inform her decisions and colour her worldview.
“He has a huge impact on my life,” she confirms. “A bunch of my friends from school who never met him say they can see me living through him. I don’t know completely what that means…but I think I definitely carry him with me every second of every day.
“My entire family definitely views life a little bit differently now,” she continues. “I always say that life is precious, and I’m all about enjoying the moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. It’s fun to be done school and talking with your friends about plans for the future, but I also don’t like planning too far ahead, because I just love enjoying where I’m at and the people that I’m with.”
Prompted to distill what it is about Siddall that’s so remarkable, Czudner needs only two words: “Grit and grace. She serves as a reminder that they’re not mutually exclusive. She’s tough as nails, but also soft in the best possible way. The Siddalls are all like that. She’s just a kid going through life. She is an example of how you can’t let any obstacle get in your way…She genuinely doesn’t see anything about her story as unique or exceptional.”
Mackenzie Siddall is…Mackenzie Siddall.
“One of my dad’s favourite quotes is, Be yourself, it’s who you do best,” she relates with typical modesty. “I think I’ve kind of grown up with that. This is who I am, and I’m not ashamed of it whatsoever. I’m determined and motivated, and I’m going to live my life just like everybody else does.”
But that’s enough introspection for now as there is much to be done. “I don’t sit still much,” she admits with a laugh. “I’m not much of a relaxer. I’m always on the move!”