Future Reflections          Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness

(back) (contents) (next)

A Blind Swimmer Uses Her Hearing and Boundless Courage to Compete

by Curtis Anderson

Reprinted from the Register Guard, Oregon, Tuesday, February 8, 2005.

Editor’s Note: If you are a blind kid, like Megan Smith in this story, it’s hard sometimes to know how you stack up against others. It’s the “isn’t it amazing” syndrome--when people are amazed that you as a blind person can function in the most ordinary ways and perform the most ordinary tasks, how do you know when your performance really is extraordinary and praiseworthy? Sports competitions can provide much needed definition. Although the following news article occasionally succumbs to the “isn’t it amazing” reaction to blindness to which newspapers are prone, Megan Smith herself seems to have developed a realistic sense of how her accomplishments compare to others, and her own comments often counter the hype of the reporting. Here is the story about Megan and her swim team:

Like Megan, Lauren Beyer (MT) knows that swimming is just one of the many opportunities she has for sports and competition.Megan Smith will have two chances to perform at this year’s Midwestern League district swim championships. The fifteen-year-old freshman from Sheldon High School will open the meet at Springfield’s Willamalane Pool on Friday by singing the national anthem. Later in the day, she will take her spot on the starting blocks for qualifying heats of both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events.

Smith harbors no qualms about her first assignment. She is an accomplished singer and a member of the Sheldon varsity choir. However, she’s never quite sure what to expect when she dives into the pool. After all, she has been blind since birth.

“Singing is something I’ve done in front of big crowds since I was five years old. Hopefully, I’m better at that than swimming,” she said with a laugh. “I came out to make friends, to branch out a little bit. It’s been hard at times, but everybody on the team has been great. They all help me out.”

Not that Smith requires an abundance of assistance. Tenacious, determined, and fearless of new situations, she has, with minimal aid, been downhill skiing at Mount Bachelor and rock climbing in Central Oregon. She played T-ball as a youngster--she ran the bases with a sighted guide--and attends camp each summer. An excellent student who gets As and Bs in the Sheldon honors program, Smith can play the violin and flute, but has set those instruments aside to focus on singing. And now, she may have found another comfort zone.

“Megan has always loved the water,” said her mom, Beth Smith. “It’s the great equalizer for her. Even sighted people have to deal with water. I was pleasantly surprised when she said she wanted to be on the swim team. It’s been wonderful. She’s made some nice friends and found a niche.”

There were concerns, of course, the most obvious being how to prevent Smith from crashing into the wall. Most blind swimmers make use of a “tapper,” a long pole or stick with a tennis ball attached to the end. When a swimmer nears the end of the pool, a person on the deck reaches out with the tapper and touches the swimmer on the back, head, or shoulder to indicate that the wall is approaching. But Smith, who is wiry and deceptively strong at 4-foot-10 and 85 pounds, has her own solution.

“I can hear the wall,” she said. “I know it sounds strange, but the water goes off the wall and I can hear that. I’ve used my hearing instead of my eyes since I was born and those other senses have developed.” However, she admitted, “sometimes when I’m swimming fast, I forget about that. I’ve hurt my hand a bunch of times.”

That pales in comparison with what Smith endured as a child. Megan Smith met Lauren Joli while singing in the Sheldon choir program. Joli urged Smith to try swimming, and the two are now teammates, despite Smith’s blindness. Joli helps Smith navigate the pool deck, one of the few concessions Smith makes to her condition. She was born in Grass Valley, California, with a condition known as bilateral microthalmia, which means her eyes never developed. She also had a herniated abdomen that required surgery on her stomach when she was twenty-four hours old, followed by sixteen days in the neo-natal intensive care unit in Sacramento. At age two, she underwent open-heart surgery to correct a heart murmur.

The Smiths moved to Oregon before Megan entered grade school, and one of the most important reasons was that Eugene was known as a place with tremendous resources for visually impaired children.

“Megan is battle-tested and she has the scars to prove it,” said her father, Kevin Smith, a teacher at Danebo Elementary School.

“As a teacher, I see things that are missing in education today, but the special education opportunities which exist for kids are unbelievable. They’ve allowed her to lead a normal, mainstreamed life. If those things had not happened back in the 1970s, she might be in an institution.”

“You have a choice,” added Beth Smith, who works with the autism program at Cesar Chávez Elementary School. “You can sit the child on a pillow and protect them, or raise them to be independent. Megan doesn’t want to be known for what she can’t do. One of her responsibilities in life is to educate people, to let them know that being blind is not as bad as we imagine it is.”

On this subject, Megan Smith gets the last word. “Sometimes I want to tell people to back off,” she said. “It’s good they want to help, but I want to tell them, ‘I can do this, let me do it.’”

For Scott Kerr and Trevor Hoke, co-head coaches of the Sheldon swim team, Smith has provided a unique challenge to their coaching abilities, plus a level of courage that inspires the entire squad.

“Megan is tough,” Hoke said. “She wants to be treated just like everybody else, and if you don’t do that, she’ll let you know.”

At first, Hoke maintained a constant vigilance over Smith, walking up and down the side of the pool with every length she swam. More recently, he has been able to loosen the reins, trusting her teammates to provide assistance. And that’s exactly what happened. During practice, they tell her “stop” when she nears the wall, and they let her know when it’s time to begin her laps. They adjust her swim cap when it becomes slightly askew and offer an escort whenever needed.
At the loud and chaotic swim meets, there is always somebody at Smith’s side to keep her posted on who’s swimming which event, and to help walk her to the starting blocks. And even though she can “hear” the wall, they gladly take turns at each end of the pool during her events as an extra safeguard.

“Megan has a great personality and the whole team loves her,” said sophomore Lauren Joli, who first encouraged Smith to try out for the swim team after the two became friends in choir class.

“She’s amazing. She learned how to dive off the blocks perfectly the first day, and it took some of us two or three days. And she always knows where the wall is. Sometimes we ask her, ‘Megan, are you sure you’re blind?’”

Kerr has been astounded at Smith’s learning curve. In just a couple of months, she has progressed from a “pinball machine that would bounce from the lane line to the wall” all the way down the pool to swimming “incredibly straight.” Her personal bests are 44.29 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle and 1:44.49 in the 100 free, but both Kerr and Hoke expect those times to drop significantly once she learns how to do a flip turn in competition. At one dual meet earlier this season, Smith’s time in the 50 freestyle was faster than one other swimmer, and her delightful sense of humor prompted this response: “Oh gosh, it sucks to lose to a blind girl.”

The Sheldon swim coaches have ambitious goals for Smith.

“By the end of her senior year, we want Megan to be able to swim every single event,” Hoke said. “The biggest thing for me is to make sure I don’t just do an OK job. I want to do a really good job with her and make sure she has a lot of fun. We want her to be looking forward to getting back in the water next November.”

Kerr is most impressed with Smith’s inner drive and motivation.

“Megan doesn’t see any obstacles at all, and I wish we all had that outlook in life,” he said. “When I tell kids they’re going to learn the butterfly, their first response is usually ‘I can’t do that.’ Megan’s first words are ‘Okay.’ The inspiration she has given our program is incredible, and her demeanor is so positive, she makes a rosy day for everybody. I’m sure she has down days, but I haven’t seen one yet.”

When Kerr first found out that Smith planned to join the swim team, he called a friend with the U.S. Paralympic team. For athletes with disabilities, the Paralympics are the equivalent of the Olympic Games. At the time, Kerr wanted to discuss safety issues, but now he plans another consultation once the season is over.

“For people of her ability and experience, Megan is probably one of the top swimmers right now,” Kerr said. “Who knows? With a couple more years, she could be one of the elite, and in four years, we could see Megan Smith at the Paralympics.”

While Smith, a first-year swimmer, has never even considered such a scenario, there are competitive opportunities for blind swimmers.

According to Jennifer Butcher, a bronze medalist for the U.S. Paralympic team at the 2000 Sydney Games, the qualifying time for the 50-meter freestyle in the S11 category (no sight at all) is 32 seconds, which converts to 27 or 28 seconds in yards.

“(Megan’s) times tell me that she is just starting. But if she really likes swimming, she could easily train and get there in no time,” said Butcher, a health and physical education teacher at the Washington State School for the Blind. “The (S11) class is small right now and we’re looking for people.”

Butcher was a competitive swimmer at Linfield College before she lost her eyesight to Stargardt’s disease, the same degenerative disorder that afflicts Eugene’s world-class runner, Marla Runyan.

“The possibilities for her are endless if she wants to do this,” said Butcher, who is now retired from swimming. “I competed in able-bodied swimming before I lost my eyesight and I figured my swim career was over. But then I found out about disabled swimming, and it has taken me all over the world. That’s why I get so excited when someone new comes into the sport.”

No matter what the future holds, Smith is determined to lead her own life.

“I like to be as active as I can and do as many things as I can,” she said. “The only thing I can’t really do is see. There may be adaptations for sports because of that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do them.”

(back) (contents) (next)