- Associated Press - Sunday, September 17, 2017

DUNCAN, Okla. (AP) - Nineteen-year-old Duncan resident Kearsty McCoy has much to celebrate. Kearsty, a swimmer since the age of 12, was recently selected to be one of only four Oklahoma swimmers to travel to Seattle for two weeks in July as a member of the Oklahoma 2018 USA Games Special Olympics swim team. This trip is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Kearsty, whose story of struggles and triumphs is more than Disney-movie worthy.

McCoy’s mother, Belinda McCoy, said Kearsty has had to fight for more than just her spot on the Special Olympic team - she’s had to fight for her survival and each developmental milestone since the moment she was born.

“She was born premature and she has had seizures her whole life,” Belinda said. “She really struggled - she was late walking, didn’t learn to read until quite a bit later - so she’s always been really delayed.”

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According to Belinda McCoy, swimming has always been a family affair. Kearsty McCoy’s younger brother Brian is a junior at Duncan High School and reached milestones faster than Kearsty, so he started swimming sooner. Kearsty wanted to get into the water just like her brother, but every time she tried, her seizures prevented her from ever learning and were terrifying for her parents, Belinda and Michael.

“Her seizures were so bad that she never had the opportunity to swim,” Belinda said. “Every time that we got her in the water she would have a seizure. So we couldn’t do that and the neurologist kept saying, ‘No, she can’t swim, she can’t swim.’”

Those ongoing seizures led to an extended hospital stay for Kearsty - and some tough decisions for her parents.

“Her seizures got really bad, she’d been in the hospital quite a while and - we finally agreed to have a vagal nerve stimulator put in, which is an implant that - sits in your chest and stimulates your brain to try to off-set some of the seizures,” Belinda said. “That, with all of her medicine helped her enough to where she could swim. Then she joined the Simmons Center Shark team and Jelia Bell was the one at the time over that. She was 12 when she did that; she’s 19 (now). She was 12 years old when she learned to swim.”

Belinda says her daughter was a natural, taking to swimming like a fish to water.

“(Bell) helped her learn to swim and the funny thing was, (Kearsty‘s) brother was already on the swim team the year before, so she’d been watching him,” Belinda said. “I don’t know if she picked some up just by seeing it, but it was like she got in the water and - she just kind of knew how to swim.”

The Duncan Banner reports that despite this triumph, Kearsty found that competing against neurotypical children at this level was frustrating, as they were far more advanced and had been swimming for much longer.

“It was really difficult for her to compete at the level that those children were,” said Belinda. “Most of those kids had swam (sic) for a long time. Jelia (Bell) and I looked into the Special Olympics, so that following year we took her to the Special Olympics and she did excellent.”

Kearsty, who swims the 50- and 100-yard backstroke, found her groove in the Special Olympics competitions. She consistently brought home gold medals and her times improved so much that she even began catching up with the other children in school swim meets.

“She just did very well - So, then she got to high school and Andrew Bowers, the high school swim coach, took her on. She swam at the high school. Toward her senior year, she wasn’t last anymore, but she wasn’t always first. But when she swam at Special Olympics, she has gold medals and all kinds of stuff. She does excellent at Special Olympics,” said Belinda.

This progress and passion for the sport led to a wonderful surprise for Kearsty over the summer, an honor reserved for few swimmers.

“This year we got a letter in the mail in June that said she had been selected and accepted as a member of the Oklahoma 2018 USA games swim team,” Belinda said. “She is one of only two girls; Oklahoma only selected four swimmers, two of them are girls and two of them are boys and she’s one of the two (girls).”

The McCoys have some fundraising to do before they can get Kearsty to Seattle in July for her Olympic and television debut, as they have been asked by the Special Olympic team to raise some money to help offset the cost of the journey.

“The Special Olympics would like for each athlete to get $2,500, but they were asking that they at least get $1,250. Because it’s to send them to Seattle, Washington,” Belinda said. “It’s the first week in July and it’s on ESPN just like the regular Olympics, Special Olympics is the same way. It’s a week long, they have the U.S.A. games and then if you get a medal in U.S.A. games, then you have the chance of going to World Games. Just like the regular Olympics, it’s only every four years. It’s the same thing; it’s just for kids with special needs.”

Overcoming obstacles doesn’t just stop with Kearsty in the McCoy family. Her parents had some emotional reservations to get over as well, all stemming from their protectiveness of Kearsty and every parent’s fear that something terrible might happen to their child.

“It took a lot for us to let her in the water, she’s had seizures, you know. She’s had seizures at swim meets and she’s had to go by ambulance to the hospital. She just doesn’t quit. The risk is there. Of course, every time she gets in the water, you have the chance of having a seizure, but she lives with the risk every day,” Belinda said.

It’s a fear similar to one that some may recognize from a key plot point in the beloved Disney movie, Finding Nemo, where Nemo’s father Marlin is so afraid that something terrible might happen to his son, who has a “lucky fin,” that he doesn’t let Nemo try anything new.

“Did I feel that way sometimes? Yeah, I really did. … I’m not going to lie, it took me a little while to, I guess, come to reason with where we were. But I have found that when I allow her to - like if she says, ‘Mama I can do this,’ when I allow her to do that and I just help her the best that I can, but I allow her to do that, she just has so much more joy in her life. My fear can’t keep her from living,” Belinda said. “My son, who also has epilepsy - it’s nothing like hers, but he made the comment when the neurologist told him he shouldn’t be swimming - he told him, ‘You can die, you can die in the water.’ He just told him, he said, ‘Well, you know I can die in my bed at night, too. But I’m with all of these people and all of these people are watching me and I like what I’m doing.’ And she just, (Kearsty is) just the same way. I just let them live.”

Though Kearsty’s parents haven’t entirely left the fear behind, that faith and trust in their daughter’s abilities has proven to be well worth it.

“It’s amazing, it’s really amazing. Several times, we thought we were going to lose her and here she is. When she got the letter, she was just bawling and she kept saying, ‘I just can’t believe this is happening, to me!’ It was so sweet. My husband and I were sitting there and … we just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘OK, if you start crying, I’m crying, so you’d better stop it,’” Belinda laughed. “It was just so exciting and it was really a neat thing.”

Kearsty’s positive impact on the people around her doesn’t just stop with her family. Her high school swim coach said that Kearsty is a true team player whose spirit infects everyone around her.

“She really kept the (atmosphere) in practices and meets pretty lively. She’s kind of a jokester; she likes to joke around, especially with her closest friends. She’s fun to be around,” Bowers said. “She is a highly competitive person. She’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. She definitely hates to lose and loves to win. She’s a person you definitely want to have on your team. She is a great teammate because of that.”

That infectious spirit and fostering of camaraderie didn’t end when Kearsty graduated high school either.

“When she was a sophomore . one of the high school swimmers came up to me and it was their idea - they wanted to go watch her at the state Special Olympics meet,” Bowers said. “That just kind of tells you the impact she had on her teammates. They wanted to go up there and support her and it was awesome to see the whole swim team there. Without direction, they all stood up while she was racing and they were extremely loud for her and it was awesome. That’s kind of been a tradition over the last couple of years, because she really meant that much to our team.”

Kearsty herself is over the moon about being selected for the swim team and achieving her dream.

“I’m excited. Achieving my dream, to go to Nationals. (I’m excited for) everything,” Kearsty said. “(When I’m in the water I feel) that I’m free. (Free from) everything. I stop thinking.”


Information from: The Duncan Banner, https://www.duncanbanner.com

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