Ready to take on the world

By Paul D. Bowker | May 01, 2013, 4 p.m. (ET)
Kayla Wheeler
Kayla Wheeler will represent the United States at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in Montreal, Canada.

The road to Rio de Janeiro clearly has begun for Paralympic swimmer Kayla Wheeler.

The 16-year-old high school student from Lynnwood, Wash., broke the world record in the 50-meter butterfly not once but twice at the Spring CanAm swimming meet in April in Minneapolis. It is the same event in which she set a world record at the 2012 U.S. Paralympics Swimming Trials.

The record now stands at 1:30.57 following her win in the S1 class at the Spring CanAm.

Her reward: A spot on the 25-member U.S. Paralympics Team that will compete at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in August in Montreal.

“I’m really looking forward to that and getting to spend some of my summer break with some of the most awesome disabled swimmers in the world,” said Wheeler, a swimmer in the S1/SB1/SM1 classification.

A 2012 USA Swimming Scholastic All-American and a member of the Shadow Seals Swim Club in Seattle, Wheeler was born with one arm and no legs. Her passion for swimming has resulted in a constant flow of medals and world and American records. She broke eight American records on April 27-28 at the annual Marin Morrison Memorial Meet hosted by the Shadow Seals.

Wheeler’s World Championships debut came in 2009 at the short-course championships in Rio de Janeiro, where she took the bronze, followed by the long-course worlds a year later in the Netherlands. Those were experiences that Wheeler will never forget.

“It’s really fun, especially when you’re there and you hear them (the public-address announcer) say, ‘Representing the United States, Kayla Wheeler.’ It gives a cool feel,” she said.

Wheeler’s next visit to Brazil could come at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games. It is a goal strongly planted in the head of a swimmer who missed the London 2012 Paralympic Games simply because there were no S1 classification events in which she could enter.

 “I feel like it’d be fun to go down there again for another international meet with the U.S. team because I kind of know already how things are going to work,” Wheeler said, noting she was bit intimidated her first trip there as it was her first international meet. “I’ll just be able to relax more and have more fun, not that I didn’t have fun the first time.”

And if there is one thing that Shadow Seals coach Kiko Van Zandt knows about Wheeler, it’s that her “fun” can quickly turn into world records and gold medals.

“The thing about Kayla is, she loves to race,” said Van Zandt, who was a swim coach for the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Paralympic Teams and is a pediatric rehabilitation clinic nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Once she gets in there and gets in the water, I know that she’s giving 100 percent every single time.”

Swimming is just one part of this 2016 Paralympic hopeful who wants to become a disability rights lawyer after attending law school. She has a grade-point average of 3.8 and is participating in the Running Start program, which enables her to take college courses at Edmonds Community College in Edmonds, Wash., while she is also completing her junior year at Mountlake Terrace High School. She is on the rocketry team and robotics team in high school.

She bowls and skis and plays baseball. And she helps out another one of her coaches, Amy Rust, with the Barracudas swim team in Edmonds. Wheeler also has been known to have a huge effect on able-bodied swimmers, Van Zandt said.

“Kayla is very articulate and very bright,” Van Zandt said. “So she can kind of tell when someone maybe isn’t quite as motivated, is kind of down on themselves or whatever. She is right there to pick them up and encourage them.”

There is no bigger connection than the one that Wheeler has built with Breanna Sprenger, an 11-year-old Paralympic swimmer from Avon, Ohio, who also made the 2013 U.S. world championship team. Breanna was never in the water until her parents saw Wheeler in a competition years ago.

“Kayla is like her mentor,” said Joyce Wheeler, Kayla’s mom. “We met them (Breanna’s family) several years ago. They had never even thought about Breanna swimming. They saw Kayla swimming and thought it would be a great sport for Breanna. So she started and now she’s competing, too.”

In addition to building their friendship at swimming meets, the two talk frequently and have used Skype to keep in touch.

“She was really, really young and little when we first met her,” Kayla Wheeler said of Breanna. “Now she’s growing into a nice young lady, and it’s kind of fun watching her progress through that, and also progress in swimming, too.”

Together, they have ramped up the United States’ entries in the S1 classification. Even now, Wheeler is awaiting qualified S1 athletes from other countries to see if there will be S1 events at the world championships. Five athletes are needed. Currently, Joyce Wheeler said, only three S1 athletes from two countries are qualified. But this time, Kayla, who was reclassified to S1 in 2012, has qualified times that would allow her to compete in S2 and S3 events.

In the International Paralympic Committee’s swimming classification system, a lower number indicates a more severe activity limitation than a higher number.

The events Wheeler may swim in at the worlds include 50 meter fly, 50 backstroke, 50 breaststroke, 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle.

“I’m hoping to break my world record again and maybe set American and Pan American records,” she said. “I want to go for the best times in pretty much everything.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for USParalympics.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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