Like all of the other Dolphins swimmers, Abby Burton of Hardin lined up on the starting block. It gets quiet, tension builds and the whistle blows. Like all of the other swimmers, Abby leaps into the pool.
Teammates begin cheering immediately as the practice freestyle relay is underway. Abby comes up for her first breath, and hears the cheers. Before she puts her head down again, she hears her mother, Dana, yell, “Kick, Abby, kick!”
That’s the way it is for all of the swimmers, as they hear their coach Angela Hambrick, or their mom, or even other swimmers call out directions.
That’s always the way it is for seven-year-old Abby, who generally swims in lane 1. Like all of the other swimmers, she kicks for the opposite wall so her teammate can begin the next leg of the race.
But, there’s something extra special about this young lady. Abby has been blind from birth, and this is her first year to swim and her first year to compete. With just one week of swimming lessons under her belt, Abby has been enjoying her time in the water and with the team.
“She hasn’t done this before,” said mom Dana Burton. “She took a week of lessons from Tara Corwin.”
Abby was born with congenital microopthalmia and has been in school since she was four months old, attending the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired (CCVI) in Kansas City. She was mainstreamed into the kindergarten class in Hardin just two years ago and looks forward to starting second grade this year.
“I cried when we had to leave and go to a public school,” said Dana. “But, the goal is to go to public school by first grade. It’s still scary. We had an awesome CCVI teacher. They teach them to use the cane in occupational therapy. Now she’ll go to Lexington two times a week for Braille, orientation and mobility classes. It lasts roughly two to three hours. She’s ready for the challenge.”
Abby doesn’t feel any limitations. Indeed, she has some goals already in mind.
“I’d like to either be a school bus driver or a fireman,” she announced.
Her mother said she remembered when Abby wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.
Either way, it isn’t hard to understand why Abby feels such independence and confidence. She jumps right into life and seems to soak it all up. She started out with t-ball.
“Her brothers don’t cut her any slack,” Dana grinned. “But, they do offer her encouragement too. They all have chores and she helps clean house too.”
As for her first year of swimming and the competition and hard work that goes along with it, Abby admits, “At first, I was kinda scared at meets.”
The first meet was at Cameron, for her and her brother Mathew. She just got her first blue ribbon in the freestyle relay, where she swam the first leg, at the St. Joseph meet. Now, she’s added the backstroke to her swimming accomplishments.
One would think swimming straight down the pool, staying in that lane and getting to the wall would be difficult for Abby, but it sure doesn’t seem that way. Each time she surfaces, coach Hambrick gives instruction and encouragement. Since Abby can see some colors and shapes a bit, she said she just looks for the big blue X on the wall of the pool to know when to stop. Then she grinned just a bit mischievously.
“Lexington has a black X, [on their pool wall] ” she said.
Abby is improving everyday. She’s working on her strokes, strength and endurance. Since practice is five days a week for an hour everyday, with meets during the week and on Saturdays, Abby is getting a good workout.
“She’s improved her time a lot,” Dana said.
“And yesterday, I went straight all the way down the pool,” Abby said proudly, sitting just a bit taller in her seat.
Of course, it hasn’t all been easy and Abby can’t always be brave, but with the team, her parents, and her coach she has become an inspiration to many.
“The first time she competed in the backstroke, she got scared and grabbed onto the lane rope,” said Dana. “Then Angela jumped in, clothes and all, and helped her to the end. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”
“She’s just inspirational,” said Angela, as she teared up, “It makes my eyes water when I talk about her.
“All of these kids are just great,” said Dana. “They cheer each other on.”
“When Abby started out, she was hugging the rope,” said Angela. “By two swim meets, she was competing.”
Referring to when she jumped into the water and helped Abby complete her first backstroke competition, Angela emphasized she didn’t carry her to the line.
“You can’t let them be scared. If you can get her down there without a disqualification, she’ll be okay,” Angela added. “If I would’ve let her get out, she might never have done it again. I just guided her with my hand lightly touching her back.”
Angela shared her coaching insights. “It’s not about coaching them. It’s about loving them. You build a connection, a trust. And there’s more to coaching than just teaching strokes. I tell them it’s okay to not always be number one or the best, as long as you’ve done your best, and we instill team values. That’s what it’s all about.”
With this kind of support, it’s no wonder that Abby continues to find that she’s only limited in her mind. So, it’s really true; seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.
Abby is the daughter of Tom and Dana Burton of Hardin with brothers Tommy, age 11 and Mathew, age 9.
Photo: Abby Burton, 7, swims the first leg of the freestyle relay at practice at Southview Pool yesterday. (Photo by Brenda Jensen/The Daily News)