Being a student athlete is challenging for anyone, given the pressures of school and the demands of the team. But Kathlyn Walker, a Delsea Regional High School senior, has faced down these challenges and thrived without the use of two important tools: her arms.
Walker, 17, of Franklinville, was born with a rare genetic disorder called TAR syndrome (thrombocytopenia with absent radii), which means she’s missing her radius bones, one of two large bones that make up the forearm. Her mother, Kathie Wright, introduced her to swimming when she was 3, and she hasn’t slowed down since. While the sport might not seem like an obvious choice for someone without use of her arms, Walker wasn’t about to let that stop her. “I knew that I loved swimming,” she explains.
As she grew, Walker began training year-round at area pools, and eventually joined the school district’s co-ed swim team. “The coach was really welcoming,” Walker says. “That was kind of what helped me decide to swim for my high school.”
Walker pushed aside any insecurity and faced the life of a disabled freshman athlete with ease, jumping into the pool and training with the rest of her team. “It wasn’t that hard, because I had my peers with me and I had the support of my mom and my coach,” she recalls. “I kind of felt like I belonged at the school, and I felt connected with my team.”
“At first, I didn’t know what she was capable of. For me it was an experience to watch a girl jump into a pool with no arms,” John Meehan, head coach of the Delsea team says. “Right away, I knew we had something special.”
Although Walker swims at a slower pace than her other teammates, she focuses on improving her own times. She entered high school swimming 20 laps per hour, and has recently been clocked swimming 72 laps, or one full mile, in an hour and a half. “I want to be the best that I can be, and do whatever it is I can do,” she explains. “If I don’t think I can do more, I won’t push it, but my goal is to increase my intensity.”
At state and county meets, Walker may not win—but she is received like a champion. “I always get an incredible response at the end of my race,” she says. “I’m usually the last one to finish, but everyone is screaming and clapping for me at the end.”
Her coach echoes the feeling. “The kids love her,” Meehan says. “Everyone supports her and cheers her on, and she gets everyone motivated. They’ve become more supporting and understanding of other people’s situations. When you see a kid with no arms jump into a pool and do what Kathlyn does, it pushes every other kid just that much harder.
“What’s so special about Kathlyn is that she is not phased by anything,” Meehan adds.
Walker’s dedication and enthusiasm extend to her activities on terra firma as well. She sings in the Gloucester County Children’s Choir, manages Delsea’s softball team, participates in a charitable yoga club, and belongs to Delsea’s Delta Eta Sigma service club. On top of all of this, she is a devoted 13-year Girl Scout, and serves as a member of the Board of Directors of Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey.
She is currently working on earning the prestigious Gold Award through a project she created focusing on physical disability awareness. She has traveled the world, participating in a Girl Scouts event in England and performing in Austria with her choir. “I just do it all to have fun,” she says.
As graduation approaches, Walker is applying to colleges including both Rowan and Rider universities. She hopes to become a guidance counselor, helping other children navigate through the school system. “I’m a good listener,” she says. “I really want to help kids out.”
Her mother, who also serves as Walker’s swim team aide, is constantly awed by her ability to push herself further every day. “She is amazing, and a lot of people see that,” Wright says. “She shows every day that just because a person is different doesn’t mean that they can’t accomplish things with their life. Everyone is different in some way, and she shows that we all have something to share with each other.”
As Walker competes in her final swimming season at Delsea, which began in December, she’d like to have a leadership role on the team, offering incoming freshmen the same advice she lives by herself: “Don’t let anyone put you down, because then they’re the ones winning—not you.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (January, 2012).
For more info on South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To subscribe to South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To advertise in South Jersey Magazine, click here.