VERMILLION — Fourteen-year-old Kathie Herrera cheerfully offers a lot of lessons in overcoming adversity.
Two weeks ago, the Vermillion girl competed at the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games in Lincoln, Neb., qualifying in multiple swimming events for the upcoming World Special Olympic Games in Greece.
Kathie and her family humbly described her time competing in Lincoln as "fun."
"I've improved," Kathie said with a smile.
At the national games, Kathie won first place in the 50-yard breaststroke, 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard freestyle. She competed in the 4X50 medley relay with fellow South Dakota swimmers, Jarod Markley and Wade Uhrich, both of Aberdeen, and Chelsea Popham, of Watertown.
Her favorite race is the 100-yard freestyle because she gets to use her legs and she has to use her arms a lot, Kathie said.
Kathie started swimming about seven years ago. While fetal alcohol syndrome has prevented her from functioning like other kids her age, Kathie's adoption parents, Dr. Leonel and Yolanda Herrera, enrolled her in swimming lessons because they thought it would help her physically and mentally.
"It's an all-encompassing disability," Yolanda said. "It's affected her motor functions, her growing capabilities. It affects her ability to put things in order."
"Her muscles were pretty weak and she struggled with coordination," she added. "In team sports, she really struggled because kids were just very impatient with her. She liked the water and we thought she might do well."
Kathie's swimming career got off to a rocky start. She had panic attacks and would often quit in the middle of races.
Today, her past is hardly evidence of her success.
"Now, that's all gone," said Mike Moran, the Vermillion Area Swim Team (VAST) coach. "She has the confidence. She has the strength. She knows she can do it."
Currently, Moran serves as Kathie's coach through VAST, Vermillion's club swim team. VAST swimmers practice five nights a week during the year and seven days a week during the summer. The group of about 40 active members, ages 6 through seniors in high school, compete all over the region.
Like many of the other coaching staff, Moran had little experience coaching a special-needs child before meeting Kathie."We treat her as just another kid," he said.
VAST assistant coach Melanie Mahowald agreed that treating Kathie the same has worked toward her advantage. Kathie's memory — especially her short-term memory — has really improved, Mahowald said.
Her teachers in school have also seen a difference, Yolanda said.
"Her instructors always tell me how diligent she works," she added. "She tries really hard to meet their demands. She's a people pleaser."
After hearing about the Special Olympic games at school, Leonel signed Kathie up to compete in swimming and running at the local Special Olympics. She easily qualified for South Dakota's games.
From there, she earned a spot to compete in the national games in both running and swimming — but Kathie had to make a choice between which sport to compete in, as they were scheduled for the same time.
Kathie chose swimming.
"Swimming is much more fun and you can be in water most of the time — not the hot sun," she said.
Kathie added that while she used to get pretty overwhelmed at swim meets — especially at bigger ones — her competitions were pretty easy going. And while the rest of Kathie's family was unable to attend the games, Leonel went to Lincoln every day to watch her compete.
She liked having her dad there to support her.
"Kathie solo-ed it," Yolanda said.
"It felt good," Kathie added. "I don't know how I would describe it. You compete against other people like a regular meet. There were hundreds, thousands."
Her experience meeting new people and gaining friends has been a big plus of joining the Special Olympics, too.
"Everybody's so friendly and generous of their time and attention," Yolanda said. "The kids are very loving. It's a different atmosphere. The competitiveness is not there.
"It's a great equalizer," she added. "Everybody participates. Everybody cheers for everybody. It gives them a good physical activity, too. Otherwise, special-needs kids might not exercise as much. It's very important for us to get her moving."
Kathie plans on staying with VAST as she enters her freshman year at Vermillion High School. Today, she is extremely proud of her gold medals she earned at the national games in Lincoln. It is almost hard to believe such a confident, good-natured young girl has been through so much.
"She's gained a lot from swimming, not just swimming and the medals," he said. "Her memory has gotten so much better in the last year because, I swear, of swimming. She knows exactly what to do now. … She just gets up there and does it like everybody else."
Kathie added, "Even though they work us, I get it done."