September / October 2008 Issue

My TEAM GAVE ME A CHANCE

by Heidi Musser

"Individuals can affect the world by becoming a model or an example in their small circle of influence. Just as a rock thrown into a pond causes ripples to gradually keep going out until eventually they are very small, so our acts influence the ecology of the entire human race." - Anonymous

That's what I hope to be - a model for disabled swimmers.

The experiences of participating in the 2008 Illinois State Masters Swimming Association (ILMSA) Championships held in DeKalb, IL, as a member of the Gray Sharks Team will linger in my memory for a long time, probably for the rest of my life. I am totally blind from day one of my life. I don't know -- and will never know - color, form or light perception. But I do know true camaraderie.

When I was asked to swim the first legs of four relays - either freestyle or backstroke -- for the ILMSA Championships., I felt extremely proud. My team was short of women and so I was invited to help out. The feeling that I was needed made me happy. I am slower than sighted swimmers, but that fact made the swimming of the second, third and fourth leg more exciting for my relay team mates and for spectators. As a relay team, we didn't come in first, but we didn't come in last either. The cheers and applause of the crowd were deafening! I also swam the 500 m freestyle for which I scored points for my team. Out of 35 teams statewide, we won an 8th place trophy! Hoorah! Together as a team, we delivered a beautiful, powerful message: When we give of ourselves and touch positively the lives of others, we enhance our own aliveness and joys!

Since ancient times, most blind and disabled individuals have lived their life according to societal expectations: "You are blind, you are disabled - you can't contribute to your community or society as a whole." When attending high school, I was considered too "fragile" to participate in P.E. classes and I was made to listen to someone read to me about health and fitness, while my sighted peers participated actively in sports. Looking back more than 20 years, I am thankful that the anger within me and my mother, Erika Musser, unleashed an unstoppable passion to "educate" P.E. coaches and the so-called education experts.

For over forty years, my family holds a membership at the Leaning Tower YMCA in Niles, IL, where I always felt welcome as a child and coaches were supportive. I practically swam before I walked. In fall 2007, Gray Sharks Team President Ken Cohen asked me to join his newly formed Gray Sharks Team. He just followed the promptings of his heart; he did not follow bureaucratic guidelines for the education and rehabilitation for the blind/disabled. Oh, how happy and honored I felt! Without the frequent e-mails of our team secretary Ellen Tobler, I probably would have skipped more training sessions and swim meets. She was after me like a hawk! I guess I needed someone like her, who has abiding faith in me that I can succeed. I can truly say that my Gray Sharks team members have helped me along to feel confident to "escape my prison of social isolation" into which my teachers wanted to lock me into.

I took the first steps for my "escape" when I participated with my California-based guide Matt Miller in the 2002 and 2004 "Escape From Alcatraz" Triathlon, swimming to shore 1.5 Miles in 55 degree choppy water after jumping off from a ferry boat anchored near the shore of The Rock. Because, I fully trusted Matt, I did what they said "couldn't be done!" In 2005, I also participated and finished the Ironman Coeur d'Alene. If I can do it, many others can do it too! Inspired by my courage, Matt created the CDifferent Foundation and the growth of blind/visually impaired triathletes and guides over the last five years is mind-boggling. Please log on to: www.cdifferent.org.

I personally would like to suggest to YMCA Master Swim Teams nationwide to reach out to blind and disabled individuals nationwide. Team members will discover the deep joy of helping someone out. Hopefully, YMCAs all throughout the nation will be able to raise money to fund programs to train disabled swimmers.

Yes, I promise to go to YMCA Masters Swimming National Championships in May 2009 and I hope to have mastered the techniques of all four strokes; and I also fervently hope that I will not experience that I'm the only disabled swimmer -- as happened frequently at swim meets in the past.

Last year, I participated with my running guide Jorge Barron in the 2007 Vienna-City Half-Marathon in Vienna, Austria. I hope to return to the European continent as soon as possible either as a triathlete, a runner or as a swimmer. Swimming and physical work-outs mainly hold for me the position of staying healthy and fit, and being with people. My God-given gift is my love for classical music. I practice the piano daily for hours. Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, etc., enrich my soul and challenge my mind.

Let's get to know each other at the 2009 YMCA Masters Swimming National Champion-ships.

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