Story and photos by Ruth Whyman
UW News Lab
Kayla Wheeler was born missing both her legs and her right arm. Sitting on the side of Shoreline Pool, waiting for a recent Sunday afternoon practice to start with Shadow Seals – a local swim team for disabled athletes – it is difficult to imagine how she might manage the physicality of swimming.
This is what makes her athletic ability so much more impressive. You only need to see her swim a length of the pool to recognize the ease at which she moves through the water. She is a talented athlete and driven individual.
“It helps to picture what you’re going for at the end of the lane. If that gold medal’s there, then swimming toward that helps,” she said.
The 16-year-old from Mountlake Terrace High School returned from Minneapolis two weeks ago laden with trophies and medals after ruling the pool at the Can-American Paralympic Swim meet.
Not only did she smash records and come away with titles like “swimmer of the day,” but she also qualified for the World Championships this summer in her class. Unfortunately, being fast doesn’t necessarily mean you get to race in disabled sport. Last year, for example, when hoping to qualify for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, “I didn’t because of lack of S1 events,” Kayla said.
Swimmers are ranked from S1 to S10 based on their physical disability, 11-13 for vision impairments and 14 for cognitive disabilities. Wheeler races S1: the most disabled group. This proves difficult, when there are often not enough eligible athletes for her to race against, even when she’s swimming world-class times.
Dennis Junk has been a regular at Shoreline Pool since his son Chris started swimming with Shadow Seals. He has known Kayla since she started swimming on the team, about seven years ago.
“She’s the best in her classification. She could have gone to the Paralympics [London] but there just weren’t enough people. Isn’t that something?”
This isn’t the first time Kayla’s proved her speed. She already has a bronze medal from the Short Course World Championships in Brazil. Her dream is to compete at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Her mom, Joyce Wheeler, on the other hand, watches from the sidelines bursting with pride and harnessing nerves for two.
“The part that gets me is when they announce her name, then USA,” she said.
Many would be content with just the one life goal, but not Kayla. On top of training three times a week, she is also taking advance level subjects in school and classes at Edmonds Community College. She wants to be a disability rights lawyer.
Her determination to succeed was clear from an early age, according to Lib Rust, one of her coaches who has known her since childhood. Her first trip to the pool was for hydrotherapy sessions at 8 months old. Then, she started swimming lessons with Rust when she was 5. Rust recalls Kayla’s independence.
“[She had] ‘keep-goingness’ and a strive to do things by herself. She never wanted any help with anything,” she said.
Rust, who along with her twin sister Amy teaches in Edmonds public schools, remains part of Kayla’s coaching team, along with Amy and Kiko Van Zandt, Shadow Seals head coach.
Van Zandt has been coaching disabled swimmers for 19 years, and U.S.A. Paralympic and World Championship teams have utilized her expertise.
The constant aim of these three women is obviously to see Kayla achieve her goals, but there is also a bigger picture to consider: the need to educate people about Paralympic sport. Kayla is at the forefront, leading by example.
Kayla helps coach children on the Barracuda Swim Team, a local club for able-bodied swimmers.
Van Zandt said: “The goal of any person with a disability is to be seen as a person first, who happens to have a disability. That’s the beauty of Paralympic swimming, because they’re all elite athletes, and of her being a lane leader and coach; she’s a swimmer first and she’s a swimmer equal to the other people.”
Amy Rust also coaches at Barracuda and can see firsthand the lasting impression Kayla makes on those she interacts with.
“[They] see a person with a disability is just the same as everyone and the kids just really adore Kayla. … It’s not just swimming they get out of it,” she said.
As more swimmers begin to arrive ready for training at just past 3 o’clock – already late by Kiko’s standards, since practice should start on the hour – it is time for focus.
A small group meeting is held to congratulate Kayla on her recent success, which is used as inspiration for her peers, some of whom are also progressing toward becoming world-class athletes.
Haley Beranbaum, for example, is also 16 years old, competing in the S5 class and just missed out on qualifying for the World Championships this summer with her teammate.
Kayla and her coaches hope that one day, disabled sport will get as much recognition and respect as able-bodied athletes.
“In a perfect world, the Paralympics would get as much publicity as the Olympics and all the events would be put on TV,” Kayla said. “It’s getting there, but it’s not as great as it could be.”
Ruth Whyman is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.