When Colleen Young swims, she searches for a line on the floor of the pool. As that line comes into focus, she knows the wall is close. Other than the mental count she keeps with each stroke, the line is the only way she can tell when to turn. It's the only thing Colleen can see.
Colleen, 14, is legally blind. She was born with albinism, a genetic defect that prevents the body from producing melanin, which gives color to hair, skin and eyes. Most people with albinism have a visual impairment caused by abnormal development of the retina and irregular nerve patterns, but the severity varies. In Colleen's case, her vision measures roughly 20/2400 in one eye and 20/2800 in the other. This means when she stands 20 feet away from an object, she sees it as well as a person with normal vision sees it from 2,400 or 2,800 feet away. For comparison, 2,640 feet equal half a mile.
Glasses help at school and around town in St. Louis, Mo., but not much. So when Colleen swims she wears goggles with regular, non-corrective lenses. That strategy, plus a little determination, has earned her a spot on the 2012 U.S. Paralympic team and an opportunity to compete at the Paralympic summer games, August 29 to September 9 in London. There, she'll swim the 50-meter freestyle, the 100-meter freestyle, the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter breast stroke.
'Just You and the Water'
When Michael Phelps' goggles filled with water during the 200-meter butterfly at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he essentially finished the race blind. That's what swimming is like all the time for Colleen, who started taking lessons at age 3.
"We wound up going to a couple of different eye doctors before we found one who wasn't gloom and doom about what she can't do," says Colleen's mother, Bridget.
Growing up, Colleen played a handful of sports -- golf, softball and soccer, to name a few. She even played viola, reading the notes in a specially ordered music book with extra-large type. Colleen's parents wanted her to decide what worked and didn't work, so they signed her up for plenty. "We put her in every possible situation and tried to see what she really took to," Bridget says. If Colleen wanted to do it, her parents would figure out a way to accommodate her vision impairment. Ultimately Colleen decided some of the activities weren't for her. She started to focus solely on swimming, and to pursue it competitively, by the time she was 8.
"I couldn't really see the ball coming [during softball or soccer]," she says. "With swimming it's just you and the water, and you don't have to focus on anything coming at you except for the wall."
Colleen swims on a team with and competes against athletes who don't have physical challenges. At practice, coaches and friends treat her like every other member of the team. She just needs to make her way to the front when learning a new technique. So when someone at an out-of-town meet told Colleen's coach she should think about competing in the Paralympics, he couldn't believe it.
"Our coach took offense to it and thought, 'there's nothing wrong with this kid,' because she just blends in, she's comfortable," Bridget says. "If you don't pay close attention, you don't realize [that she's legally blind]."
Bridget signed up Colleen for her first Paralympic swim meet in 2010, and making the U.S. Paralympic team has been Colleen's goal ever since.
Turning Vision Impairment Into Motivation
Colleen takes her poor vision in stride. When someone she has just met asks her why she holds the menu up to her face [to read it], she simply says she can't see well, divulging details only when asked a follow-up question.
Colleen's always been that way, says Bridget.
"She never uses lack of vision as an excuse for everything. People say look what a great job we did as parents, but I don't think it's us. It's Colleen's personality. She just gets more motivated if you tell her no. We just always follow along, and as long as she wants to try something, we'll find a way to adapt it to make it work, and she can decide."
In the pool, Colleen puts the same attitude to work. "Everyone has better vision than me," she says, "but I still beat some people and people beat me. It's just part of competition."
When she's swimming against athletes who don't have physical challenges, Colleen's vision impairment motivates her to win, to prove herself. At the Paralympics, it's less about her vision. Her age becomes the issue -- she's the youngest athlete on the team. But it offers the same healthy dose of motivation.
Looking For The Next Line
Colleen didn't always look for the line on the pool floor. She looked to the flags above the lanes as a guide at first, before realizing that, depending on their colors, the lighting around the pool could make them tough to see. "But I coped," she says simply. She adapted, looking beneath the surface for a more reliable marker.
"When she puts her mind to it, she goes and she continues to surprise us," says Bridget of the way her daughter constantly sets new goals and achieves them. Colleen's strength and dedication to swimming has not only helped her cope with her condition, but it's also helped her parents.
"She's full-force ahead and just really independent," Bridget says. "When we got this diagnosis that's what we wanted ... we wanted her to be independent, and we got our wish."
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