Blindness hasn't prevented record-breaking swimmer Kate Pavlacka from attaining her goals.

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Blindness hasn't dimmed the spirit of this record-breaking swimmer.  

Kate Pavlacka
 

Blindness hasn't dimmed the spirit of this record-breaking swimmer.

“Swimmers, step up.”


Goggles clamped over her eyes, nineteen-year-old Kate Pavlacka stepped onto the starting block. She was about to race against the world’s fastest competitors at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia.


To stay relaxed, Kate pictured herself making the proper strokes and the turns. She was the American record-holder in this event—the 400-meter freestyle for visually impaired swimmers—but she was worried. Her qualifying races that morning had been several seconds slower than her best.


“Take your mark.”


A loud blast signaled the start of the race. Kate’s worries disappeared as she dived. “When I’m swimming, my mind is clear,” she says.


Blindness hasn't dimmed the spirit of this record-breaking swimmer.With each stroke, Kate brushed her hand against the rope that separated her lane from the next one. This is how she knows she is swimming in a straight line. It’s not easy. “My high-school coach would always tease me about swimming 105 yards instead of 100 because I would zig and zag so much,” she says. Thousands of hours of practice have helped her overcome that problem.


A tap on the shoulder tells Kate that she is near the end of the pool and should prepare to turn. A person taps her on the shoulder with a tennis ball attached to a bamboo pole. In an earlier race at the Paralympics, she thought she had felt a tap, so she turned. It was too early, though, and she was nearly disqualified.


Fortunately, she had no such problems in the final. She finished in fifth place among swimmers from around the world. Her time of six minutes, three and two-hundredths seconds set a new American record.


When she heard the time, “I started flipping out!” she recalls.









A tap on the shoulder tells Kate that she is near the end of the pool.  
A tap on the shoulder tells Kate that she is near the end of the pool.  

To prepare for the Paralympics, Kate had taken a semester off from college to devote all of her efforts to training. She spent three months at the Olympic Training Centers in California and Colorado swimming and lifting weights for five to six hours a day.


“The Paralympics were incredible and a lot of fun, but also a lot of stress,” she says. She was glad to take a break after all that intensity to focus on her studies. She plans to become a sports dietician after graduating from college.


Learning to Be Blind
Kate hasn’t always been blind. When she was five, doctors discovered she had a very rare degenerative eye condition. Unfortunately, there is no cure. Her eyesight became progressively worse until she could not see at all.


“Learning to be blind” has been a constant challenge. Kate wanted to be independent—she wanted to roller-skate, ride a bike, and do her homework without help.


Slowly, with the help of her friends and family, Kate began to accept her blindness. “I quit being angry at God for making this happen to me,” she says. “I need to make the best of what I have instead of worrying about what I don’t have.


“I like my independence,” she says, “but now I know it’s better to get help sometimes.”


Letting people help her allows Kate to do things she might not have been able to do on her own. She loves to run, for example, and is able to do it if she runs with a partner. The partner can warn her about branches, curbs, and other obstacles.









  Kate has always loved the water.
  Kate has always loved the water.

Swimming is the best of both worlds—Kate can be independent while in the pool, but she is also part of a team. She has excelled at swimming ever since she started competing with her high-school team in Liverpool, New York.


Many swimmers learn by watching others. For Kate the process is different. A coach demonstrates the techniques by moving her arms and legs in the proper way.


“I try to let the coaches know that I am not any different from their other swimmers except for the fact that they might have to physically show me things instead of just telling me,” Kate says.


Swimming has helped Kate connect with people, especially other athletes. “I have found that I inspire many people,” she says. “It is not only uplifting and beneficial for others to see me, but it is also uplifting and beneficial for me when I know that I have helped others, through inspiration, to reach their own goals.”