Braille Monitor                                                 October 2011

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Triggering a Wave of Emotion

by John Cannon

From the Editor: the following article was originally published January 18, 2011, in the Frederick, Maryland, News-Post. Jason Polansky has clearly benefitted from growing up in the Federation. At fourteen he is taking things in his stride that have often either distressed or turned the heads of blind people much older than he.

This article is an excellent example of the adulation blind people often receive for doing ordinary things with zest and poise. Sometimes the blind people receiving such praise begin to believe that they really must be something pretty special. Others, knowing that they are very little different from the people around them, become angry and frustrated—a reaction that puzzles their friends. Jason seems to be pretty much unflappable. He knows he is not a champion swimmer, and he thinks that people should cheer for all the swimmers the way they cheer for him. That said, he goes about his training, devising work-arounds and trying to improve his times and strokes. Jason and his parents deserve congratulations for his common sense and discipline. Here is the article about one of our own:

Catoctin freshman Jason Polansky wasn't the fastest swimmer in the meet. He didn't set any records. He didn't win his races. No, what he did was even more amazing, and it caused an eruption of applause from teammates, coaches, opponents, and spectators. Despite being blind, Polansky jumped off the block, pierced the water, and swam with all his might in the Cougars' season-opening meet against Urbana.

Polansky has bilateral anophthalmia, a rare condition that means he was born without eyes. Anyone who knows this bright and determined fourteen-year-old is accustomed to seeing him overcome obstacles caused by blindness. But, when people watch Polansky triumph over adversity to compete in a high school varsity swim meet like the one against Urbana, it triggers a wave of emotion.

"Our first meet was amazing," Catoctin co-coach Rebecca Scott said. "The entire pool deck was screaming for him. It brought tears to his mom's eyes, to my eyes, to (Catoctin co-coach Jen) Hosey's eyes. "The Urbana swimmers were up--all the spectators," she said. "Our swimmers were all cheering him along. He's (got) so much courage to get in and do what he does, that it's just completely inspiring to everybody."

Polansky has competed in all the Cougars' meets--the 100-yard breaststroke and 50-yard freestyle are his main events. Like other swimmers, he jumps off the block when he hears the loud starting horn. As he swims in the outer lane, a teammate stands poolside and holds a 10-foot PVC pipe with a tennis ball attached to it. When Polansky reaches the flags, which alert swimmers that they're approaching the wall, he gets tapped on the head or shoulders with the tennis ball, so he knows it's time to begin his turn.

This is Polansky's first season as a competitive swimmer. He came out for the team because he was looking for an activity to help him stay fit, but this experience has done more than help him maintain physical health. Polansky has enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with being a member of a sports team, and his determination to compete despite being blind has given a lift to Catoctin's young program, which is in its fourth season.

"He's just an inspiration because he's doing such an awesome job in the water," Catoctin senior swimmer Melissa Swanson said. "He's just proven that he can do anything and he can overcome anything."

Overcoming adversity

Polansky was born with empty eye sockets because his eyes never developed. So, unlike some other blind people who have eyes, he had no way to detect whether it was light or dark. Like any set of typical parents, Susan and Edward Polansky had no idea how to raise a blind child. They would learn, and talking with parents of other blind children helped. They were advised to have the same expectations for their son as they would if he had sight.

Polansky eventually got a set of prosthetic eyes. He worked with teachers for the visually impaired, who taught him Braille and adaptations that would allow him to perform academically like his peers. He has an orientation and mobility instructor, who teaches cane travel skills. Instead of attending a school for the blind, he would be mainstreamed and attend public schools in Frederick County. Polansky has an excellent memory and an inborn sense of direction, which helps him get around.

When Polansky interacts with someone with sight, such as a classmate, he might be the only blind person they ever know. Realizing this, he wants to show he isn't limited by blindness. His history of physical activity helps prove that point. Polansky began taking swimming lessons at the Mount St. Mary's pool when he was three-and-a-half. Eventually, he was jumping off the diving board. "At first I was scared to jump off the diving board," he said. "And then my teacher was like, `Come on, you can do it.' And I did it, and I liked it."

Polansky's swimming teacher originally had plans to enter another profession. But he was so fulfilled by the experience of watching students like Polansky make progress in the pool, he decided to be a teacher.

The determined Polansky was well-known at Mount St. Mary's pool. Two lifeguards at that facility were Hosey and Scott, who would later become Polansky's swimming coaches at Catoctin.

Playing Sports

To help him avoid obesity, Polansky has always been physically active. Aside from swimming at the Mount and working out at the gym, he likes to ride a tandem bike with his father. He learned all about sports from his older brother Kevin Riffle, who's into physical fitness and serves as a role model for Polansky. And, when Polansky was in elementary school, he heard classmates talking about playing tee-ball. So he asked his parents a question--why couldn't he play tee-ball?

There was no reason he couldn't. Legally blind people--who may possess some sight--play sports against athletes with sight, and some go far. Legally blind athletes who reached grand stages include Marla Runyan--who competed for the United States in the 1,500-meter run at the 2000 Sydney Olympics--and cross-country skier and biathlete Brian McKeever--who was named to Canada's 2010 Winter Olympics team.

Even if he didn't become a world-class athlete and even though he had no sight at all, Polansky could experience athletics. He played tee-ball for one year. After hitting the stationary ball, he used a clicker and a person running with him to navigate the base paths. Later Polansky met someone who wrestled, so he tried that sport, which other blind athletes have participated in. "It was a good experience, but it just wasn't my thing," Polansky said. "It's good to try things out."

When he came to Catoctin, he would try competitive swimming for the first time. In fact, his English teacher happened to be Coach Hosey, who remembered Polansky from her days as a lifeguard. "He was amazing when I saw him at the Mount going off the diving board," she said. "So I was very excited to have him be a part of the competitive team here." Swimming coaches often instruct by example for athletes with sight, but Hosey and Scott would have to find another way with Polansky. "It's made us better coaches because we have to think and break down even further than what we do normally," Hosey said.

In practices Polansky uses AdaptTap, a navigation system for visually impaired swimmers invented at Notre Dame. AdaptTap have flexible rods with a buoy on one end and a clamp that hooks onto the lane line at the other end. AdaptTap help blind swimmers stay positioned in the lane, and the devices can be used instead of tapping poles to notify them when they're under the flag. This navigation has helped Polansky swim straighter.

"He's dropping time; he's swimming straight," Hosey said. "It's really amazing to watch." During meets someone sight-guides Polansky toward the block. When swimmers are instructed to get up on the block, he does so by himself. Being a first-year competitive swimmer, he had never jumped off the blocks before. "I was a little scared at first," he said. "But I guess after you do something, you just get more comfortable with it. So I'm pretty comfortable now."

This Season

Hosey calls Polansky a gamer, and the swimmer has been getting better times in the breaststroke. Also his strokes are legal, which can be a challenge for swimmers with sight. "My goal is to improve my time and improve my strokes and keep getting better," Polansky said. "I'm not really concerned about winning; I'm really more concerned about improving. I am concerned about speed; I want to get faster, but I want to make sure my form's right. I've been legal every time, but I just want to get better. That's pretty much it."

He made his quest sound like it was no big deal, but anyone who watches him feels otherwise. “For us to witness, not just our team but the opposing teams cheering for him and wanting to get to know him," Hosey said. "It's just been a really amazing feeling and inspiring to see these kids get motivated by what he does on a daily basis."

As the season progressed, Polansky began competing in relay meets. His teammates tell him when it's time for him to go. "They're very supportive of me," he said. Polansky discovered the true benefits of being on a sports team--joining forces with others in pursuit of a common goal and forming bonds. He enjoys activities like team pasta parties. "I like the teamwork part of it. I like to get to know people and talk to people with the same interests and just encourage each other and cheer for each other," he said. "It's just fun. I made a lot of friends from the swim team."

"He's the nicest boy," Swanson said. "He's hilarious, and he's just the most optimistic kid that I've ever met in my life."

Polansky's not one to hog the spotlight, either. He's told teammates people should cheer for everybody else as much as for him. Of course, when he made his competitive debut against Urbana, he got the loudest applause. "I cried," Susan said. "We had no idea that people were going to respond like that."

She understands that people are amazed at seeing her son jump in the water and compete by swimming from one end of the pool to the other. While proud, she's not surprised to see Polansky do such things. She said: "We have learned over the past fourteen years, if you really know about blindness and blind people, you know that they can do pretty much anything they want to do as long as they have the training and the background to do it and the desire to do it."

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