MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Because Kayla Wheeler was born without legs, with only a short stump for a right arm, and with a malformed left arm, there are some things she cannot do.
But not as many as you might think.
Wheeler, a 17-year-old senior at Mountlake Terrace High School, is a member of her school’s Honor Society. She plans to attend college and perhaps law school. She enjoys drama, with Miss Hannigan from “Annie” and Mrs. Potts from “Beauty and the Beast” two of her favorite roles.
And she is a member of her school’s robotics and rocketry teams.
But remarkable as it sounds — remarkable, of course, since she has just one limb, not four — some of her greatest achievements have come in sports. Because despite needing a wheelchair to get around in her daily life, Wheeler is an accomplished swimmer with 32 United States records (a combination of disability classes, short course and long course, meters and yards) and world records in the 50-meter butterfly in two disability classes.
“My parents had no idea when I was born that I was going to be a world record holder in the 50 butterfly,” Wheeler said, flashing one of her frequent smiles.
She started swimming when she was 8 months old, though at that age her pool time was mostly spent splashing. Her mother, Joyce Wheeler, wanted her to be comfortable in the water, and capable of righting herself if she ever fell in.
Back then, Joyce Wheeler said, “it never occurred to me that she would actually swim, let alone compete.”
Kayla Wheeler began learning strokes when she was in kindergarten, but did not start competing until six years ago. She swam at a junior nationals event for disabled athletes that same year, and has competed nationally and internationally ever since.
What hooked her on swimming, she said, “was when I started winning. And at that first junior nationals, I came home with mostly gold (medals).” After that, she said, “I just kept swimming … and just kept getting better.”
She races roughly six times a year, usually in the United States or Canada, though she has also been to Mexico, Brazil and the Netherlands. Her goal is to be on the U.S. team at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps again at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
“Breaking records is awesome, and so is winning medals,” she added. “But it’s not necessarily all about that. It also feels good when I beat a time that I haven’t been close (to before).”
Wheeler trains partly on her own and partly with the Shadow Seals, a disability swim club in the Seattle area. Her Shadow Seals coach, Kiki Van Zandt, said Wheeler “is pretty special. … She’s a great, great representative of the sport, of our region, and even of our country when she goes to international events. She’s personable, articulate, she knows what she wants, and she sets goals and goes after them.
“Despite her disability, she’s like any able-body swimmer,” Van Zandt added. “She has dreams and aspirations to achieve at the highest level she can. And the fact that she’s out there doing it and setting the mark for (other disabled) people around the world is amazing.”
Wheeler can swim all four strokes — breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and freestyle — but has difficulty rotating her shoulder in the backstroke, “and it actually kind of hurts to do it,” she said.
She prefers the other three, and has the most success with the butterfly. The remarkable thing is that she generates all her speed through the water with one arm. What makes it more difficult is that her arm does not bend properly, and she has just three fingers, two of them fused together.
But with no weight from her legs, “I’m actually very buoyant,” she said. “My butt floats.”
No one is quite sure why Wheeler was born with three missing limbs.
According to Joyce Wheeler, the best guess by medical specialists “is that it was something vascular” during fetal development. Joyce Wheeler had ultrasounds at eight, 15 and 37 weeks, “and they didn’t detect anything.
Said Kayla: “I was born like this and my mom was very surprised.”
“There’s an understatement,” Joyce Wheeler added. “‘Shocked’ would be a better word.”
Kayla Wheeler uses a special wheelchair that she operates with a joystick and buttons, and she has a service dog — a 10-year-old black labradoodle named Cadet — that she takes most places, including school.
Despite her disability, she is a typical teenager in many ways. She occasionally argues with her brother, sometimes feels stressed at school and gets frustrated with certain peer relationships.
The great thing about swimming, she said, “is that it gives me something to do, but it’s also a release.” On most days, she said, “I just enjoy being in the water. The feel of it, the weightlessness, and the fact that you can let all your other emotions go, no matter what else you’re dealing with.”
Her daughter’s extraordinary successes in swimming are “a total surprise,” Joyce Wheeler admitted. “Our first year we were flying to Maryland for a swim meet and I was thinking, ‘What? Really?’ And then I cried through the whole meet. The French team was all by the side of the pool, cheering her on, and it was so surreal. It was like, ‘Wow, that’s my kid.’”
Swimming is not only great exercise, “it gives people a reason to talk to her and acknowledge her when they might otherwise not,” Joyce Wheeler said. “Because now she’s not just the disabled girl, she’s the disabled swimming girl.”