As soon as the coach yells “go,” 15 swimmers dive into the 6-lane swimming pool at Superior Athletic Club. During this practice drill, Sara Slawta is third in line in lane six.
In the water, Slawta, who was diagnosed with brain impairment at a young age, is just like “one of the other kids,” says her swimming coach of 14 years, Siouxha Tokman.
Slawta swims in the Elite group at Superior Stingray Swimming, the most competitive level at the club. Slawta, 24, is the oldest athlete in the group of 15 to 20 swimmers, and she is the only Stingray swimmer eligible to compete for Athletes Without Limits and International Federation for Intellectual Disability Sport (known as INAS), coach Scott Kohlmeier says.
“She keeps up with them, and we have a lot of good swimmers in this group,” Tokman says. “She’s competitive, and she always looks for ways to get better.”
Slawta joined Superior Stingray more than a year ago. Since then, she has come in every day for a two-hour practice.
“Practice makes perfect,” she says. “I just like swimming, so I come every time and try to be better each time.”
Her efforts are paying off: Slawta won nine medals at the 2017 Athletes Without Limits Long Course National Championships in Georgia July 9. She also helped break an American record as part of a 4x100 relay. The league is for amateur swimmers with intellectual disabilities, Down Syndrome or autism.
While her records are impressive, Slawta has her eyes on an even bigger prize: to be selected to compete in the 2017 INAS World Swimming Championships in Mexico.
“Then the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo,” Slawta says.
Slawta gets through each word slowly, and she smiles when she can't find a way to express her thoughts. But with coach Tokman around, her eyes light up, and her words come out naturally and often with a giggle. Tokman helps Slawta express her thoughts, and she doesn’t need to say much for him to understand her.
“I have been coaching her since she was a little girl,” Tokman said. “Sara, to us, she’s a very special person. She is such a wonderful person with such great character. She’s cheerful and friendly.”
Slawta works at Southern Oregon University Dining Services, serving meals and “making the best coffee in town,” Tokman says.
She also fills her day going to voice lessons in Phoenix with a private tutor. Her Facebook account is filled with short clips of her singing karaoke to popular songs. Her favorite artists include Britney Spears, Pia Mia and Lindsay Lohan — “the good stuff,” as Slawta describes it.
Her parents encouraged her to get into sports, Slawta says. Her mom used to swim and her dad races bikes. They provide unwavering support for Slawta at meets.
“Very, very supporting,” Slawta says. “My mom will go to Mexico with me if I am selected.”
She'll learn whether she’s been chosen in week or two, Slawta says.
Slawta won a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke and placed second in both the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke at the 2012 Paralympic swim trials, but she wasn’t chosen for the Paralympic team.
“She should be on the national team with what she did over there,” Tokman says. “[The meet] used to be a simple thing, now it is televised with money involved, there’s politics involved. ... Many families and kids get really serious about these meets, and the level of competition is rising.”
As Slawta gets into the pool for the group’s daily practice, she starts chatting with one of her teammates and smiles.
“For her to be accepted by other people, it’s always a struggle,” Tokman said. “It’s something we have never talked about, but I know that, and she knows that, and her mother knows that. It’s her personality being such a wonderful person ... people here really like her for who she is.”
— Tran Nguyen is a reporting intern for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.