Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan
McClain Hermes, 12, of the Hamilton Mill Hammerheads Swim Team laughs with her teammates during competition against Morning View at the Hamilton Mill Swimming Pool in Dacula on June 20th.
Legally Blind Swimmer
McClain Hermes, 12, competes on the Hamilton Mill Hammerheads Swim Team and is legally blind.
McClain Hermes, churning through the water, speeds toward a cement wall.
Her Hamilton Mill swim coach, Holly Isserstedt, stands at the end of the lane with a cane in her hand. A tennis ball, covered in the dull gray of duct tape, stuck to the end of it.
As McClain nears, Isserstedt reaches out and taps her between the shoulder blades.
McClain executes a neat flip turn and is off, driving for the opposite wall.
A year ago, McClain would have smashed into the wall or slowed down significantly as she felt it looming.
"McClain could not get out of the lane last year without crying, whatever the event was," Isserstedt said.
McClain is legally blind after having both retinas detach three years ago. Surgeons were able to reattach the left retina, but not the right.
"It's left my vision ... poor," the 12-year-old said in a wide understatement. "I have no depth perception and without correction, I can't see like more than three feet in front of me. With correction, it's, like, bad."
McClain has been on the Hamilton Mill swim team for eight years. She's spent all her summers in the pool and trains year-round with SwimAtlanta.
But last year, when she was deemed legally blind, her parents were going to pull her out of the water.
"Last summer, I was unaware of her visual impairment and that her vision had dramatically decreased in a very short period of time," Isserstedt said. "So she hit her head, very hard, one day. When she got out of the pool, I didn't understand her injury was a result of not being able to see the wall.
"Obviously this was quite upsetting to her parents. They had decided they were going to take her off the team. When I realized what the issue was, I didn't want to see her quit. I knew how much she loved it. All of her friends were on the team."
Isserstedt made a trip to Home Depot. She spent an hour walking the isles, looking for inspiration.
The first version was a dowel with a tennis ball taped to it. They've refined it, but it's taken a lot more than a creative way to cue McClain when to start her flip turn.
It's taken yards of practice and acres of trust.
"It takes a lot of courage," Isserstedt said. "I just started working with her, very slowly, a little bit at a time.
"It took a very long time for her to develop the trust that she was able to respond appropriately to the tap and swim the way she always had."
The first couple of times McClain just describes as scary.
"I've gotten better because I've gotten more confident that I won't hurt myself," McClain said. "So I'm able to go faster."
Isserstedt saw a difference in McClain's outlook immediately though.
"Swimming is her passion," Isserstedt said. "That didn't change because she had two detached retinas. In her heart, she was still a swimmer.
"(I saw) her come to the realization that she could continue to do the thing that she loved in spite of this obstacle she had to overcome -- which actually became fairly minor in hindsight."
McClain competes each week against her peers, all of whom can see. A freestyler until recently, Isserstedt has her working on the breaststroke now.
It takes some explaining at the weekly meets, the cane with a tennis ball tapping her at each turn, and McClain needs help in other ways, too.
"McClain is completely night blind, so we get about halfway through a Thursday swim meet and she can't see anything," her mom, Carmen Hermes said. "Just the way the kids help her, I can just sit there and watch the meet. It's neat to see the whole swim team rally around her. As well as other teams."
They ask what the stick is for. Isserstedt explains. Or McClain does.
"I just tell them it's a cane," McClain said with a smile revealing the black and red bands on her braces. "They say, 'You're not old.' I say, 'Yeah, I'm old and decrepit.'"
McClain jokes, but Carmen sees what happens when kids from other teams hear about her daughter.
"It's not just Hammerheads cheering for her," she said. "The other teams are cheering for her, too."
Isserstedt welcomes the questions. Because it a chance to change people's perceptions.
"They don't have an awareness that there is an opportunity for visually impaired people to swim," Isserstedt said. "All of a sudden, they start thinking of people they know who would potentially love to swim and didn't know it was an option. Then they see it in the flesh."
Isserstedt gets calls from all over Gwinnett County. They want to know if Hamilton Mill really has a legally blind swimmer."It's amazing what Coach Holly has done, because McClain wouldn't have a sport if it wasn't for her saying, 'No, we're not going to pull her out of the pool, we're going to figure this out,'" Carmen Hermes said. "It's also given her something more than just summer team.
"Her year-round SwimAtlanta coaches are tapping her. Coach Holly got us involved in the Paralympics, which really gives McClain some goals."
Her Paralympics' coach, Fred Lamback, considers her a contender for the Rio Games. She'll be just 15 then.
"It's really exciting," McClain said. "If I wasn't in the Paralympics, I probably wouldn't have that chance."
Isserstedt found Lamback's team, the Georgia Blaze, in Augusta and McClain went to a meet.
"They said I would be a great person to add to their team," McClain said. "I went to one practice and I enjoyed it so much that we kept on going."
Two weekends a month, McClain goes to the practices Lamback has at Agnes Scott College in Decatur. She's been to Paralympic meets already, in Birmingham and Cincinnati and competed against women in their 20s.
"I think she was comparing herself to the able-bodied swimmers and frustrated because she didn't feel like she was being competitive with them," Carmen said. "Since last summer, with us getting involved in the Paralympic swimming, she has a much better understanding.
"It's given her a goal. There are Paralympic times. So she's learned to focus on those time standards as opposed to necessarily comparing herself to our able-bodied swimmers."
But with Isserstedt's invention, McClain also knows she can compete against anyone.
"If she sees her times not being what she wants them to be, she doesn't see that as an element of being visually impaired, but that she just has to work harder at the stroke," Isserstedt said. "A lot of that has freed her up to do many more things than I think she would have done before.
"Because she was so hyperaware of the limitations and now she's talking about Rio so obviously those limitations have lessened."
The more visible accommodations Hamilton Mill made to keep McClain on the team has brought more kids with different disabilities to the team.
The Hammerheads have several kids on the autistic spectrum and others with arthritic or orthopedic limitations.
"Swimming has really leveled the playing field for them," Isserstedt said. "I think it's one of the few sports where you can participate fully with able-bodied peers. At their age, that is an incredibly important thing.
"I think sometimes the perception is if you are a parent of a special needs child that that places an unnecessary burden on that team, on that coach. I think we've really gotten the message to our swim community that if you want to swim, we want you to swim and we'll do whatever we can to make that possible."
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