Sophomore shines in synchronized swimming despite disability

October 9, 2015 — by Charin Park

Sophomore Raquel Boales helps disabled swimmers learn to swim during an event in Taiwan.

Despite difficulties from her disability, Erb’s palsy, sophomore Raquel Boales pursues synchronized swimming and competes at the national level.

One of sophomore Raquel Boales’ earliest memories is of sitting in a wheelchair as she was rolled into her kindergarten classroom. She was encased in an enormous, hot-pink body cast. Her left arm hung limp at her shoulder. She was 5.

Raquel was born with Erb’s palsy, a brachial plexus injury caused by damage to the nerves and tissue in her left shoulder. Usually a result of birth trauma, the condition means weakness and loss of motion in the affected arm or shoulder.

Around one to two infants are diagnosed with it for every 1,000 live births, but over half recover in a couple months, either naturally, or through surgery and physical therapy. Raquel is among the remaining percent who suffer permanent damage from Erb’s palsy.

Her mother, Tina Boales, remembered being terrified when she realized that her daughter had a lifelong disability.

When Raquel was born in 2000, not much was known about the condition. Her mother described Raquel’s early years as a “take-one-day-at-a-time situation” because no one knew what to expect from it.

“We dedicated our lives to her as we should be as parents in this situation,” Tina said. “Our love, respect [and] care for her has steered Raquel on the right path and has been very rewarding for us as parents and for our family.”

In 2005, Raquel underwent a surgery to improve the nerves and tissues in her shoulder. Throughout kindergarten, Raquel had to wear the large body cast. It was so heavy that she couldn’t walk properly and had to be confined to a wheelchair for four months. She then had to wear a progressive cast for an additional four years.

Though she still has trouble with tasks that require both arms, such as braiding or brushing her hair, Raquel said that her condition greatly improved following her surgery.

Her doctor told her that she could not play any sports until she got out of her progressive cast four years later. But even after the bandages came off in 2009, her arm and shoulder were still vulnerable to permanent damage, so her doctor limited Raquel to water sports.

Raquel said the restrictions “sparked [her] will to try something [new].” So at age 9, Raquel and her mom spotted a flyer about “water ballet,” or synchronized swimming, and Mrs. Boales made sure to enroll Raquel on a team. Having practiced ballet a year before her surgery, Raquel was thrilled to start the new sport.

“Being the girly girl I was at the time, I practically died with excitement,”  Raquel said.

Her parents enrolled her into her first synchronized swim team, the San Jose Angelfish. When they talked to the coach about Raquel’s Erb’s palsy, they were surprised to find that the coach saw no barriers. The coach told Raquel to jump in the pool and “go for it.”

Raquel was excited at the prospect of synchronized swimming, though the first couple of weeks were especially difficult. The palsy in her left arm made it difficult for her to stay on the surface and keep up with the team.

“I honestly hated [swimming] at first — here I was, 9 years old and barely functioning as well as everyone else,” said Raquel. “Girls would ask me about what [was] wrong with my arm, and trying to explain it over and over to people really became a hassle. ”

But despite the problems she ran into at first, Raquel says her parents continuously encouraged her to stick with it.

“People would think that's something you shouldn't do to your child when they’re struggling, but for me, it worked perfectly,”  Raquel said. “Sure, I had my limitations, and they knew that, but they pushed me to try harder and be someone I would have never thought I would be today.”

Now in her seventh season of synchronized swimming, Raquel says that she feels at home in the water.

“I feel like a different person; gravity isn’t there to pull me down, and the water helps with that,” Raquel said. “I have a full range of motion on both arms and shoulders, which is something I don’t have outside of the water.”

Raquel has come a long way from her first few weeks of synchro. As a member of the Santa Clara Aquamaids, Raquel is now nationally ranked and globally recognized as the first U.S. synchronized swimmer with a disability to compete in the Canadian Espoir National Synchronized Swimming Championships, where she placed first in her solo for both figures and routine in the June 2014. Raquel described it as an “iconic moment and the start of a new beginning.”

“It was such a thrill to swim in front of so many people on Canadian television,” Raquel said. “Like everyone else, I was super freaked out, but my adrenaline kicked in and I just went for it. I’m glad I did — when I heard [my score] on the announcement, I looked at my coach and my parents and we all started crying.”

Raquel and her mother have also created Synchronized Swimming Athletes with Disabilities (AWD), an international advocacy and information group that helps people with disabilities who are interested in synchronized swimming. They are also pushing to introduce synchronized swimming as a Paralympic Sport.

Raquel says that while synchronized swimming is not a contact sport, it still involves a lot of muscle work, and since it is a water sport, synchronized swimmers “don’t have gravity pushing them down” during practice, which makes it ideal for people with disabilities.

Until recently, Raquel had never met another synchronized swimmer who shared her disability, but in the first week of October Raquel was coaching synchronized swimming as a part of an AWD outreach effort and met a new girl her age who also had Erb’s palsy.

“It felt so natural. It was almost normal to me as if nothing was wrong, “ Raquel said. “I focused more on her ability instead of the disability.”

Raquel hopes that other athletes with disabilities “stay positive and never give up on what they want to do.” In the future, she hopes that the AWD can be their “voice and also create more opportunities for them to succeed.”

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