Talent swimmer eyes London Paralympics

For all the work that went into preparing his star pupil, John Weinbrecht wasn't really sure what to expect when the moment of truth arrived.

For one, Sara Slawta was under immense pressure. Her dream of qualifying for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London hung in the balance, and she was about to jump into a pool that was roughly twice the length of the one she had spent the previous two months training in. Also, she had yet to prove herself against top-level competition, and now was being asked to do so under the bright lights of the Keating Aquatic Center on the campus of the University of Cincinnati — a long way, both in distance and scale, from Slawta's training pools at the Ashland YMCA and Southern Oregon University.

But Slawta, a 19-year-old Phoenix High alum who lives in Talent, shrugged off the pressure and made the most of her opportunity at the GTAC Disability Open Meet May 19-20, setting personal records and netting the top time by an American woman in three events — the 200-meter freestyle, 100 backstroke and 100 breaststroke — to keep alive her dream of competing in London.

"Actually, she far surpassed my expectations," says Weinbrecht, who was the captain of the Indiana State University swim team in 1969-70 and has been coaching Special Olympics swimmers on an off for the last 33 years. "I knew that she was an extremely talented swimmer with great capability and a bright future, but there were a lot of people there, a lot of languages and a lot of people swimming very fast."

But not fast enough to keep Slawta from qualifying for the final stepping stone to London — the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials, set for June 14-16 at Bismarck State College Aquatic and Wellness Center in Bismark, N.D. Not bad for somebody who as a young girl was afraid of the water.

"That was quite a journey," Weinbrecht said, "to get to the point where now "… her mechanics are second to none. When she gets it, she really gets it."

That in itself is part of the challenge for Slawta. Though physically adept, she has what is classified, in Paralympic terms, as an S14 disability, a cognitive hiccup that affects her ability to process information quickly. This can manifest itself in many different ways, including a swimmer's understanding of the sport's rules.

"But in Sara's case, that isn't a problem," Weinbrecht said. "Part of our training is understanding all the rules and regulations in all the races. And it gets pretty technical."

Repetition has helped.

To prepare for the upcoming trials, Slawta trains for about 11/2 hours a day, five days a week at both the Ashland YMCA and the SOU pool. Weinbrecht first began coaching Slawta about two years ago, but the workouts have become more intense in recent months.

Now, Slawta is in the process of tapering off for the Trials. Last week, she wore a sweatshirt in the pool to increase drag. This week she's sporting a T-shirt. By the time she dives into the pool in Bismark, Slawta's bathing suit will feel as light as a feather.

"He knows me well," Slawta says of Weinbrecht, "because he knows what I can do better than what I know what I can do. So, if I tell him I can't do it he tells me I can do it. And when I tell him I have a cramp he tells me to swim through it. And when I have water in my goggles, he tells me to swim through it."

"I've been around some pretty strong swimmers and not any of them have the commitment and the drive that she has," Weinbrecht said. "When she gets in the pool it's all business. And now that we're on a regular schedule she's just excelling almost every day.

"As a coach, it's the most exciting thing that you can imagine."

And that starts, says Weinbrecht, with Slawta's inner drive.

"I've been around a lot of swimmers," he said, "and her attitude is just second to none. She finds it exciting and thrilling. Yes, it's a huge amount of work, but almost with each drill she sets goals and she goes after them. She loves to surpass goals."

That's exactly what she did at the GTAC Disability Open, shattering her previous records in the 200-meter freestyle (2:58.45), the 100 breaststroke (1:53.04) and the 100 backstroke (1:41.66). She also swam personal bests in the 200 individual medley, 100 freestyle and 50 breaststroke, events that will not be available in her category in London.

Slawta may need a similar breakthrough in North Dakota next week in order to qualify for the Paralympics. Weinbrecht likes her chances, but also understands that the trials aren't all about marks. In fact, it's Slawta's perceived potential that will likely determine whether or not she'll be in London in late August and early September.

Of course, Weinbrecht sees gobs of potential, and hopes the powers that be that represent the Paralympics also spot that potential next week.

"(Slawta) knows what to expect now," Weinbrecht said. "She's a lot more used to the size, the turns, the venues, and plus we're really hitting it this month.

"There's no real certainty, but "… yes, I believe that she has a chance to make the team."

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