Kiko Van Zandt was a nurse at Children’s Hospital 20 years ago when she met two active patients in wheelchairs. The youths wanted to exercise and were looking for more ways to do so. “They wheelchair-raced outside of Children’s and asked me to help them swim,” said Van Zandt. The nurse agreed to be their coach and that connection started the Shadow Seals swimming program.
The Shadow Seals program was revolutionary then and now. It is the only independent swim team in the United States focusing solely on swimmers with disabilities.
“The wheelchair race group called themselves Team Shadow and we got the name Shadow Seals from there,” said Van Zandt, who is still a nurse at Children’s. Each of the Shadow Seals has a disability, which can be either mental or physical, but Van Zandt’s goal for the team is to make sure every member trains as though on an able-bodied swim team. “The premise of this team is to provide kids with physical disabilities the same things we got growing up,” said Van Zandt. “My goal was to have the swimmers love swimming so much that they want to swim year round on an able-bodied team.” She modeled the program based on her days as a competitive swimmer at the University of Washington in the 1970s.
Today Van Zandt coaches the Shadow Seals team with the help of permanent coaches Guillermo Romano and Justin Fleming, who oversee volunteer student-coaches Nathan Ives and Maddie Maider from Roosevelt High School. The five coaches design workouts and drills for the swimmers, who range in age from 8 to 22 years. In addition to the 12 swimmers registered with the club, there are an additional five athletes certified by other USA swimming clubs to practice with the team. Practices alternate between Shoreline Pool in Shoreline and Lindbergh Pool in Renton.
Before swimming in regional or national competitions, each swimmer has to be classified based on a disability range of S10 to S1. Swimmers compete only against people in the same ranking.
A swimmer who is S1 ranked is the most disabled, which includes those with only one arm like Kayla Wheeler. Wheeler, a Mountlake Terrace High School senior, is a celebrated Shadow Seal. Born missing three limbs, she swims with her left arm, and holds four world records and countless national records. She has been named to the Scholastic All-American team two years in a row for maintaining a 4.0 in core high school classes while also meeting Paralympic Championship standards.
Though she was originally classified as an S4 swimmer, she was S3 for four-and-a-half years and S1 for 18 months, but is currently classified as S2. Three of her world records are in the 50 butterfly in classes 1, 2, and 3. “Kayla likes it when people don’t think she can do it,” said Kayla’s mom, Joyce Wheeler. Kayla loves to swim every event except for backstroke, which is unfortunate because she hopes to compete at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and the only event there for S2 swimmers is the backstroke. A strong competitor, Kayla plans to continue to train despite pain in her left shoulder from the repetitive backstroke motion.
One of Kayla’s teammates, Anita Braitmayer, suffers the effects of paraplegic residual to polio and joined Shadow Seals in the fall of 2009 because her mother made her do so. “Seriously,” said Anita, “my mom encouraged me to join.”
Anita’s mom, Karen Braitmayer, wanted her daughter to learn more than swimming. “I felt Anita would benefit from the camaraderie of other kids who shared her experience of being a person with disability in our community,” said Karen. “Most of these kids are ‘only’s’ – the only kid with a physical disability in their school environment. It is tiring being the one everyone notices. Having fun and getting faster in her swimming was just icing on the cake.”
During an extended stay in Children’s Hospital, Anita learned to swim using just her arms. She is ranked S6. According to Karen Braitmayer, Anita’s biggest challenge “was that she got chilled very easily without the warmth of muscle moving in her lower limbs.” Like her teammates, Anita perseveres beyond obstacles.
Coach Justin Fleming has a long-term connection to the program. He was born with multiple birth defects in his right leg and had to have it amputated while just a week old. The operation took place at Children’s Hospital. “I met Kiko when I was seven days old,” said Fleming. He joined the Shadow Seals when he was in grade school and has enjoyed a long career. The practices helped propel Fleming to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, where he raced in the 400 meter freestyle and 100 meter butterfly events in the S8 classification. He finished seventh overall in both events. Fleming became a coach with the Shadow Seals in order to make sure more kids get the same chance he did and also to give back to the community.
Coach Guillermo Romano’s route to the team was different. He and Fleming swam on the same able-bodied team in high school. “[Fleming] pulled one of my friends on to the Shadow Seals,” said Romano, “and then he pulled me in.” He assisted the team the same way both current volunteer coaches Ives and Maider do now, giving workouts to lanes of swimmers before heading off to college. “I lost track of Kiko,” said Romano, “but then I saw her at a master’s championship meet and reconnected with her.” He rejoined the Shadow Seals as a permanent coach.
“Coaching is my greatest passion,” Romano said. “Coaching people with disabilities presents a challenge you won’t find with able bodied teams. It allows and forces me to constantly create new strokes or adaptations that I wouldn’t do elsewhere.” But all three of the coaches don’t just help the Shadow Seals; they also travel to teach more kids with disabilities. Romano even went to Mexico in February to train coaches there.
The club attracts swimmers outside the Seattle area. “We draw (swimmers) from Camano Island and from all over,” Romano said. “We had a kid from Arkansas swim with our team once. Because there are so few meets, most swimmers need to travel a long distance to compete. Most teams can’t afford to send a coach with them, and we pick up a few swimmers during a meet and give them feedback.” When not everyone can get together, the coaches encourage the athletes to practice individually. “We email or text workouts [to swimmers] and do one-on-one workouts with athletes not on an able-bodied team,” Romano said. In addition, the coaches rotate so they can work with everybody.
This Sunday, March 9, the public will have an opportunity to support the swimmers, when the Shadow Seals hold a Swim-A-Thon at Lindbergh Pool in Renton. This annual fundraiser has each athlete swim for either two hours or 200 pool lengths. People who want to donate can either pledge a dollar amount per lengths a swimmer will do in two hours, or a total amount up front.
The team is also preparing for the Fifth Annual Marin Morrison Memorial Meet on May 3 and 4. The meet is named after former Shadow Seal Marin Morrison, who went on to compete in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. She died the following year due to a brain tumor. Since there are no other clubs like the Shadow Seals to compete against, the Shadow Seals host their own event every year. The Memorial Meet is open to all swimmers who are registered with USA Swimming. If you’re looking to see impressive swimmers, this is the meet to watch.
For more information on the Shadow Seals, see their website.
— By Quint Turner
(Quint Turner, a Meadowdale High School senior and a My Edmonds News intern, wrote this story on the Shadow Seals swim program for his senior project.)