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Swimmer Refuses to Let Vision Problems Impair Her Will to Win

After Debra Brandewie won her fourth swimming event at the U.S. Assn. of Blind Athletes national championships last June at Indianapolis, she had some free time on her hands. So she looked for something to keep her busy.

It was more than 100 degrees at Purdue Stadium, but the track events of the national championships for blind athletes were still going on. Brandewie had run a little while training for the swimming team at Mission Viejo High School, but she had never competed in track. What the heck, she decided to give running a try.

Brandewie entered the 800 meters, figuring it wouldn’t require the explosive strength of a sprint or the endurance of a long-distance run. Much to her dismay, she soon discovered the race demanded both.

She stood at the starting line, wearing long shorts and a T-shirt and asked a few of the other competitors for tips on how to stretch before the race and what to do once the gun sounded. They just told her to run as fast as she could.

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She finished a surprising fourth.

“I did it just for fun; I thought it would be easy,” said Brandewie, who graduated from Mission Viejo in June. “But during the race and just after it, I thought I was going to die.”

These days, she’s sticking to swimming. Brandewie attends Southern Methodist University on an academic scholarship and is part of the SMU swimming team.

She will travel to Seoul, South Korea, to compete in the Paralympics, an Olympic-style competition for visually impaired and handicapped athletes, Oct. 15-24.

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About 3,000 athletes from 60 countries are expected to compete at Seoul. Brandewie qualified to compete in 10 swimming events at the national championships in June, which served as the U.S. trials. She holds world records for her vision class in the 100-meter backstroke, 400-meter individual medley and 400-meter freestyle.

Visually impaired competitors in the Paralympics fall in three classes, ranging from totally blind (B1) to Brandewie’s status (B3). She can see the lines at the bottom of the pool but can’t read the clock at pool side.

Brandewie, 17, was born with a condition called maculopathy, a generally non-degenerative disease in which the individual is extremely nearsighted. When she was 14, she experienced an unexpected decrease in her vision. She noticed the chalk board blurring at school and found herself almost burying her nose in her books to read. Recent tests at UCLA haven’t been conclusive as to whether her eyesight will deteriorate further.

“At first I was embarrassed and I didn’t like to talk about it,” she said. “But I’ve had time to get used to it. I don’t think of myself as any different from anyone else. I can’t do anything about my eyes, so why worry about it?”

Brandewie learned to cope through the help of a mobility instructor, who taught her how to recognize shadows and make her way riding buses. She reads large-print books and gets around the small SMU campus easily. Her dorm room is only a short walk from the pool.

She takes her condition in stride. “I get to kick back and listen to the radio when other people have to struggle in traffic, " she said with a laugh.

Brandewie, who was 6 when she started swimming lessons, swam with the Fullerton Aquatics Swim Team for about 1 1/2 years, training along with Olympic triple-gold medalist Janet Evans, and then last summer with the Irvine Novaquatics. Many of the swimmers didn’t notice that Brandewie couldn’t see the pace clock or couldn’t recognize them from more than a few feet away. It wasn’t until a story appeared in a local paper that several swimmers realized that she was visually impaired.

She said she doesn’t make a point of discussing her eyesight because she wants to be treated just like everyone else. And except for a condition called nastagmus, which causes her eyes to move slightly back and forth, there is nothing that gives any indication her sight is impaired.

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When people ask her about the movement of her eyes, she has a quick response: “I tell them I watched too much tennis when I was younger.”

In her sophomore year in high school she learned of the association for blind athletes and really started making waves of her own. She was just another swimmer at Mission Viejo before her first blind national championships last year.

“She was coming in as a virtual unknown in the (swimming) world and she forced everyone to a higher level of competition,” said Sandy White, USABA swim coach.

White picks Brandewie to finish first in at least 5 of the 10 events she has qualified for at Seoul, though Brandewie is hoping only to swim in 5 or 6 events. She’s training harder at SMU now than she ever has, lifting weights, jumping rope, doing situps, swimming and running.

On the SMU women’s team, which was 21st in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships last year, her future is in the 100 and 200 backstroke, SMU Coach Steve Collins said.

“Her times are off the NCAA qualifying times, but the way she is practicing, I can see her helping us at the conference level,” Collins said. “She has a great attitude, works very hard and seems to get along with everyone socially. She has a smile on her face whenever she comes to practice.”

With the new demands of studying in college and the rigorous workouts on the swim team, Brandewie is learning to enjoy her idle time. Which means that after she swims her last event at Seoul, even if she has a couple of hours to kill, it’s a safe bet she won’t head to the track.


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