Abby McAlpin has a résumé to make any high school swimmer proud.
The O’Connor senior has competed at the UIL state meet. She has set school and district records. She has medalled in an international competition in Portugal. She has earned a scholarship to swim at North Texas.
McAlpin also is deaf. She has 98 percent hearing loss, wears hearing aids and reads lips as well as most people can read books.
“It’s just part of me. I don’t think about me being deaf,” McAlpin said. “It’s who I am, and I’m OK with that.”
It wasn’t always that way.
She will step onto the starting block today during the Region VII-5A finals at Davis Natatorium with one focus — winning. But Northside ISD coach Bill Thomas remembers a much different girl when he first met McAlpin four years ago.
Thomas recalled times when McAlpin would break down in tears on the starting blocks because she was intimidated by her competitors.
“She had no confidence,” Thomas said.
McAlpin struggled outside of the pool, too. She wore her hair in ways that would hide her hearing aids. Classmates would sometimes tease her about her speech.
“I used to just want to be like everybody else,” said McAlpin, who only lip-reads and doesn’t use sign language.
Eventually, the pool became a confidence builder. That started at the district meet her freshman year. After a routine preliminary swim, McAlpin medaled in the 200-yard individual medley and the 100 backstroke.
“Everybody was like, ‘What got into Abby?’” Thomas said.
Then in the summer of 2011, she hit her stride at the World Deaf Swimming Championships in Portugal, where she led Team USA to a gold medal.
There she began to believe that she could be more than just a high school swimmer. She competed against hearing-impaired athletes from collegiate swimming powerhouses such as Arizona and Hawaii.
“I was kind of a shining star there,” McAlpin said. “And it just gave me so much confidence.”
That translated into a breakout junior season in which she set a district record in the 200 IM, placed third in the event at regionals and gained a berth at the state meet.
She earned offers from UNT and TCU. After visiting both, she settled on the Mean Green.
Thomas said her deafness wasn’t an issue in her recruitment.
“Swimming recruiting is all data driven. If the kids have the times, they’re going to go places,” Thomas said. “The clock doesn’t lie, and the clock doesn’t care if you’re deaf.”
Her future college coach agreed, and already has a deaf athlete on the roster: Jarmila Gupta, who swam for Alamo Area Aquatics Association and was home-schooled.
“(Abby) is just a real special kid. She’s so well-adjusted socially. … She’s a great swimmer,” North Texas coach Joe Dykstra said. “I have no doubt it’s going to work out for both of us.”
If anything, being deaf has forced her to spend extra time training and developing her technique. She can usually hear the starting horn, but sometimes is slightly late off the blocks.
“It’s made me stronger mentally and physically because it’s so upsetting when you don’t hear that horn or you don’t hear ‘take your mark’ and it ruins your race,” McAlpin said.
Some natatoriums have a special strobe light on the starting block that provides visual cues on when to take off. North Texas’ pool already has them. They’ll be installed at the new outdoor pool being built by Northside ISD.
That decision was made even before the Department of Education told public schools last month that they had to provide equal access to athletics for students with disabilities.
“When we were doing our shopping, I saw those and knew we needed them,” Thomas said, “because of Abby.”
Today, McAlpin hopes to win her first regional gold medal. She’ll swim the 200 IM, 100 backstroke and on O’Connor’s 400 free relay team.
A gold would be one more accomplishment to add to her growing resume.
“It’s my senior year, and I’m just looking to have fun and swim fast,” McAlpin said. “It would be just awesome to win.”