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Smith takes ability to new level.

Byline: Curtis Anderson The Register-Guard

Megan Smith was near exhaustion.

It was getting late, and as she hung out with two of her teammates in a dorm room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the blind swimmer from Sheldon High School couldn't help but think ahead to the next day's early morning workout.

She did so with a certain amount of trepidation. The two-a-day training sessions, in which Smith and six other Paralympic swimmers are pushed to their limits, are a new experience for all of the athletes.

"I'm pretty tired right now," said Smith, 17, who was among those chosen to participate in the USOC's first residence program for Paralympic athletes this fall.

"The first few weeks were tough, being at altitude and going through such rigorous training. It's been a huge change for me, but I can see the benefits ... this is a chance for me to test my own strength, to see what I'm made of. So, all in all, it's been a good thing."

To those who know her best, that's vintage Smith.

Tough-minded and fearless, yet equally kind and empathetic, she has never shied away from a challenge.

Even when it meant moving more than 1,000 miles away from her Eugene home, leaving behind family and friends, and starting over in a new city, and a new school, where she doesn't know a soul for her senior year of high school.

"Megan has always wanted to be treated as normal," Sheldon swim coach Scott Kerr said. "And if you pardon the pun, she just doesn't see obstacles in her path."

Smith was born in a Sacramento hospital on Oct. 31 with a medical condition known as bilateral microthalmia. In essence, her eyes never fully developed, and she has been totally blind since birth.

Smith, who was raised in an athletic family with three siblings active in volleyball and baseball, always wanted to compete in a "real sport." So, in the early winter of her freshman year at Sheldon, she decided to give swimming a try in an effort to make new friends.

And now, just three years later, she has developed into one of the nation's top S-11 swimmers, which is the Paralympic category for blind swimmers.

She has progressed from what Kerr once described as a "pinball machine" bouncing from lane line to wall, into a swimmer with the potential not only to earn a spot on the U.S. team that will compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, but one with a chance to medal.

"It's hard to believe where I'm at right now," Smith said. "It's still kind of a shock. Honestly, I didn't expect all this when I started high school swimming. I just wanted to make friends."

Ranked among world's best

The Paralympic Games have been around since 1960, but they are still largely misunderstood by the general public.

Smith welcomes the opportunity to educate people on the subject.

"People usually confuse us with Special Olympics, and that gets old," she said. "There's nothing wrong with Special Olympics, but it's a completely different organization."

The Paralympic Games are an international competition among elite athletes with physical disabilities. With a total of 19 sports, they are second in size only to the Olympic Games. The Paralympics are held every four years and follow the Olympics at the same venues and facilities.

They offer competitive opportunities to athletes who are blind or visually impaired, those with amputated limbs or spinal cord injuries, and those with motor impairments because of cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries or stroke.

Not everyone gets a medal. And there are minimum qualification standards in each sport.

Smith was invited to Colorado Springs based on her potential to medal in Beijing. In this country, she is one of about six active swimmers in the S-11 class, according to Julie O'Neill, the associate director and head coach for U.S. Paralympic swimming.

"Megan is pretty young in terms of her swimming experience," O'Neill said.

"She has a good feel for the water, she makes changes easily in terms of stroke, and we see the potential for her to move from the edge of making the finals, all the way up to being a medalist by the time the Beijing Games come around next summer."

Blind swimmers use a "tapper" to avoid crashing into the wall.

It's a long pole or stick with a tennis ball attached to the end. When a swimmer nears the end of the pool, a support person on the deck reaches out with the tapper and touches the swimmer on the back, head or shoulder to indicate the wall is approaching.

Smith's learning curve has always been a steep one.

In less than three years, she has shaved nearly 11 seconds off her personal best in the 50-meter freestyle (37.87), and almost 24 seconds off her PR in the 100-meter freestyle (1:25.02).

The world records for S-11 swimmers in those events are 32.32 and 1:11.37, respectively.

"She's good at learning quickly because of her disability," Kerr said. "She can picture things in her head, while others have to see it or feel it."

Although Smith prefers longer distances, such as the 400 freestyle, only the 50- and 100-meter freestyles will be contested at the 2008 Paralympic Games. She can qualify for a trip to China at the U.S. Paralympic Swim Trials, April 3-5, in Minneapolis, where her times will be compared with the world rankings.

"Our selection process (for Beijing) is not based on place but times, and where those times fall into the world rankings," O'Neill said.

"Right now, worldwide, Megan is ranked in the top 10 with lots of room for improvement."

Traveling the world

For Smith, competitive swimming has boosted her confidence and given her a chance to travel the world.

She has already been to Montreal, Vancouver, B.C., and San Antonio for meets, and she was a member of the U.S. team that swam at the Para-Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last August.

Although Smith failed to medal in Brazil, twice placing fourth, she had a successful meet with PRs in four of her five events.

"I had an awesome time," she said.

"It was really cool to be around the Brazilian fans. The way they crowded around the swimmers and supported all the Paralympic athletes was ridiculous. I had never experienced that before."

The next important meet is the U.S. Paralympics Open in College Park, Md., Dec. 6-8. Smith plans to use those results as a measuring stick for her current training regimen.

She and her teammates at the USOC training center are in the pool six days a week, with swim practice each morning, and a combination of swimming, weight lifting or dryland training in the afternoons.

"I'm looking forward to that meet," Smith said. "I still have a long way to go if I want to make the U.S. team."

In the meantime, she is busy making new friends at Palmer High, a local public school, where she studies English and science, sings in two choirs and acts as an advocate for the Paralympics.

"If people want to find out about it, I'll let them know," she said. "When kids at school wonder what I do, they're pretty amazed when I tell them."

Smith's decision to move to Colorado Springs for her final year of high school was a difficult one. Besides missing her family, she was fiercely loyal to Kerr.

He was the one who first opened the door to the world of competitive swimming for Smith, and it was under his steady guidance that she blossomed into a world-class Paralympic performer.

"We're so thankful that Scott was there (at Sheldon)," said Beth Smith, Megan's mother. "He has been such a wonderful coach for Megan. He made her feel part of the team right away."

For his part, Kerr said mentoring Smith forced him to question and adapt his techniques, an ongoing process that took him to new heights as a swim coach.

"It was a great and fun ride for me," he said. "Megan challenged me every day, and I think that ultimately made me a better coach. You assume that everybody understands what you're saying, but with Megan, I had to be more descriptive with my words. It made me rethink how I've been doing things for years."

In the end, Kerr realized that Smith would need somebody else to take her to the next level.

And now, Smith's entire family is along for the ride.

"It's always been that way," Beth Smith said. "I remember when (Megan) was first born, the doctor told us, `You will not believe the places she will take you,' and he was right.

"He was talking about the different kind of places we would go in life with a visually impaired child, but she has, literally, taken us many places."

And who knows where the road might end?
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Title Annotation:Swimming; The former Sheldon High School swimmer is poised to compete for the United States in the Paralympic Games
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 9, 2007
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