If ever there was proof of miracle, Aledo's Aspen Shelton might be it.
The 15-year-old swimmer from Aledo High School not only has a rock-solid GPA, she is a competitive athlete and has the personality to match. But what the sophomore doesn’t have is something most folks may take for granted - good eyesight.
Considered legally blind, Aspen is a USA Swimmer and a USA Paralympic S 12 American record holder in the 100 free-style, 50 backstroke and 100 backstroke. While swimming for AHS, she’s also a Fort Worth Area Swim Team (FAST) club team member.
Recently, Aspen competed in the Speedo Can/Am Para-Swimming Championship in Canada where she won six gold medals.
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According to the USA Paralympic website Team USA racked up a total of 17 records over the weekend with 14 American and three Pan American records. The competition welcomed 160 of the world’s best athletes from more than 10 countries.
Shelton made her presence known by setting the American record in the women’s S12 100 and 400 freestyle. She continued with wins in the 50 and 200 freestyle as well aas the 100 breaststroke.
Aspen’s journey towards success into the pool began when she was just 18 months old, as a form of therapy. She was born a “micro preemie” weighing in at just 1 pound, 12 ounces.
“She’s my miracle,” her mom Vicki calls her.
It was around 37 weeks, while still in the hospital, that doctors discovered Aspen’s ocular issues and declared her to have Retinopathy Of Prematurity - ROP, Stage III and “plus disease.”
According to the National Eye Institute, ROP is a potentially blinding eye disorder that primarily affects premature infants weighing about 2¾ pounds (1250 grams) or less, that are born before 31 weeks of gestation. The smaller a baby is at birth, the more likely that baby is to develop ROP.
“Plus disease” means that the blood vessels of the retina have become enlarged and twisted, indicating a worsening of the disease. Treatment at this point has a good chance of preventing retinal detachment.
Vicki said she always suspected that Aspen would be declared legally blind as her eyesight was 20/400. Sure enough, in sixth grade, attending school in Keller at the time, news was indeed what they expected.
“We were told she was legally blind and that she would never drive a car,” Vicki said. “I kept thinking that this wasn’t real. So we just choose not to believe it.”
It wasn’t until the ninth grade it became “real” Vicki said.
“Her peripheral vision was like looking through a straw,” Vicki added. “No matter how much I denied it, it didn’t make it go away.”
Like a fish in water
Along her journey, Aspen’s spirits remained high.
“It’s okay,” Aspen said. “You have to look at life optimistically. I’m happy with what I have.”
It was that persistence, and a love for competitive swimming, that made Aspen’s sight 20/20.
“I started swimming at Emler when I was 6 years old and competitively since 9; I’ve just kept going,” she said.
Aspen has always competed against “able bodies,” said Vickie.
“We put her in the mainstream; we didn’t let her think she was different,” Vicki said. “The only thing she wasn’t allowed to do was play contact sports for obvious reasons.”
It was during her freshman year she heard of the Paralympic movement and a 15-year-old swimmer for Georgia, Hermes McClain, who had a similar disability and was competing in the pool.
“We got interested,” Vicki said. “We were watching some of their swim times and felt like Aspen could compete.”
In fact, had Aspen been able to compete in Rio de Janeiro, she would've walked away with a silver medal.
“It’s not easy to qualify for the Paralympics,” Vicki said. “You have to have medical documentation and get several tests to show what your vision is. It took us a year and lots of paperwork.”
Before the Paralympic team headed off to Rio to compete, Aspen was invited to Houston to meet the team, and see them off.
“It was so cool,” Aspen said. “It was so much fun.”
Like most dedicated athletes, Aspen swims almost everyday. Since AHS doesn’t have a natatorium, the teen has to be ferried to Fort Worth every day to workout at Tarrant County College's South Campus, sometimes twice a day.
Aspen said it’s fun but some mornings it’s hard to get up.
“She’s very focused,” said Kim Dorsey, AHS swim coach. “She’s very fun to watch. I’m impressed with her motivation and dedication, as anyone would be, with or without a disability.”
In four years, the Paralympic team will be headed to Tokyo. Aspen’s sights are set on taking the medal stand at 19.
“It’d be a dream come true,” Aspen said “It’d be a wonderful opportunity to represent the USA.”
Lance Winter: 817-390-7274