Teen Without Legs, Only One Arm Competes in World Championships
(LYNWOOD, Wash.) -- Born without legs and only one arm, Kayla Wheeler, a 16-year-old high school student from Lynnwood, Wash., is gearing up to compete in the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships this August in Montreal. She's one of 25 American swimmers who has qualified to represent team USA.
"I'm just excited to see all of them. It's fun, and it fills me with joy to know that I am going to be spending two weeks of my life with some of the best swimmers in the world," Wheeler told ABC News.
Wheeler will compete in the S-1 class, which is the Paralympics category for those who are the most disabled. It includes only two other swimmers.
"I am basically the most disabled you can be and still swim," Wheeler said.
It was at the Can/Am Para-Swimming Championship last month in Minneapolis where Kayla broke her own record, with a time of 1:30 in the 50-meter butterfly.
"I broke it twice, once in the morning and once in finals. It was my own world record already, and I broke it again. It still feels really awesome," she said. Wheeler came away from the meet as female swimmer of the day for all three days of competition, and female swimmer of the meet, earning three gold medals in every division she competed in.
Wheeler got her swimming start at the age of 8 months, after a doctor suggested that she try hydrotherapy to help her learn how to balance her body and sit up.
"As an infant she loved the water," her mother, Joyce Wheeler, told ABC News. "I guess I never thought she would learn how to swim, but I just wanted her to be safe around the water."
That's when Joyce Wheeler set out to find someone who could give her daughter real swimming lessons. Amy Rust, coach of the Barracudas swim team in Edmonds, Wash., took on that challenge, propelling Wheeler into her swimming career.
When she was 10 years old, Wheeler joined the Shadow Seal Swim Club. Accredited by USA Swimming, the club offers swimmers with disabilities opportunities to compete.
"I had my eye on Kayla [Wheeler] about two years before she joined my team, Kiko Van Zandt, a coach and pediatric rehabilitation clinic nurse at Seattle Children's Hospital, told ABC News.
"She [Wheeler] is a role model to people not only with disabilities, but also able-bodied people too," Van Zandt said. "At a recent local meet, she got the crowd going and people were seeing that if she can do it, then my kid can do it too."
Wheeler inspired close friend Breanna Sprenger, an 11-year-old from Avon, Ohio, born with the same disabilities as Wheeler. The two met through the International Child Amputee Network. Sprenger now competes with Wheeler and an Australian athlete in the S-1 category for the most disabled.
"I actually taught her how to swim," said Wheeler. "I showed her parents the fact that it was possible for her to swim. So now she is competitively swimming and following in my footsteps so to speak. We call each other the body twins. She calls me her mentor and I call her my mentee."
Over the past six years, Wheeler has competed at the Can /Am Para-Swimming Championships, the World Championships in Rio de Janeirio, where she took home a bronze medal, the World Championships in the Netherlands, as well as the 2012 Paralympic Trials last June in North Dakota, where she won female swimmer of the meet. That qualified her for the 2012 Paralympics in London.
But she couldn't compete in London, because there were not enough swimmers for her to compete against in her category -- there must be at least five swimmers from two different countries for there to be a race.
"The classifications get a little frustrating," said her mother Joyce Wheeler. "She started in the S-3 class. At the beginning she was at the top of the class and the more people who came in bumped her down at the bottom of the class. There are not than many people in her S-1 swimming class. She is out there beating her own records and times."
But Wheeler's goals -- and talents -- stretch beyond competitive swimming. She was recently named the 2012 USA Swimming Scholastic All-American, earning a grade point average of a 3.8, while taking classes at her high school and a local community college through the Running Start program.
"I eventually want to go through law school and eventually become a disability rights right attorney," said Wheeler. When Wheeler is not in the pool or studying, she enjoys snow skiing, playing baseball and being on her high school's rocketry and robotics teams.
She also helps to coach nondisabled kids to swim. "The youngest person I have helped was in pre-K, and the oldest was 11 or 12 years old," Wheeler said.
"I want to continue as long as I physically can continue, and I am hoping to make the 2016 Rio Paralympic team," said Wheeler. "I think a lot of it is just going to depend on if they can get a lot of S-1 swimmers from other countries. As of now, my times are good enough, but now it's going to depend on how many people they are going to get onto the team.
"My parents have always taught me that I can do anything that I put my mind to," said Wheeler. So I just put my mind to it."
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