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Ilen Valdez Has Made Quite a Ripple in the Pool as a Member of the Jackets Swim Team

                Cleburne High School junior Ilen Valdez has made quite a ripple in the pool as a member of the Jackets Swim Team.

                Valdez, who chose to add competitive swimming to her list of “experiences” she is continually expanding, has represented Cleburne in the girls 50-meter and 100-meter races throughout the season. She was among those competing at the 8-5A District Meet on January 21.

She has also served as an inspiration to her fellow swimmers, and those who have watched her compete, as a visually impaired athlete.

                “I love Ilen—she is the sweetest,” teammate Samara Harman said. “At first I wondered how it would work. But I knew Ilen before she joined the swim team. I’ve never seen her disability as something holding her back. She’s a great girl and a hard worker, so I knew she could do this. I have often reminded myself that if she can come out and compete in one of the hardest sports, then I have no room to complain.”

                “Most people don’t recognize that she is blind,” Harman said. “But when she hits the wall at the end of her race, everyone is on their feet and cheering. It’s been very cool throughout the season to see everyone come together for her.”

                April Vernon, who works with Valdez as the district’s teacher for the visually impaired, was among the first to learn about her student’s hopes to swim for the Jackets.

                “Ilen told me last spring she was interested in being on the swim team,” Vernon said. “I told her about their early morning practices at Splash Station and all that would be required from her to compete. She wanted to do this, and she has stayed with it. She had taken swim lessons when she was in the fifth and sixth grades at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. I was able to get some helpful information from their coaches.”

“While Ilen may be my first visually impaired student to compete in sports at CHS, I knew the day would come,” Vernon said. “I’ve also had students with low vision compete in golf. I know not to limit students as to what they want to do—I want to encourage them as much as I can. If they want to do something, I begin finding out how we can make that happen.”

Jackets Head Swim Coach Ciro Salazar and Assistant Coach Tai Shelton were on the same page as Vernon in welcoming Valdez to the team.

“In Puerto Rico, I used to swim at night in the open ocean,” Salazar said. “It makes me feel like it’s that same kind of experience for Ilen. Ultimately, she gave us her trust in getting her into the water and competing. She overcame challenges and swims with confidence—she owns it.”

At meets, Salazar or Shelton walk alongside Valdez, directing her as she swims down her lane. She knows how many strokes it takes to get to the wall, and the coach counts them down as she gets close to the finish.

“She’s a remarkable athlete,” Salazar said. “I love her work ethic and determination. She comes ready to work. She has a great memory. Once you tell her what to do, she remembers—and won’t quit until she feels she has it right, even if it takes 100 times. Ilen is also trustworthy. I love that about her.”

“The team helps her and encourages her,” Salazar said. “They also push her because, like everyone else on the team, she’s competing for points. But she also pushes them to reach farther and to be as dedicated as she is.”

Shelton, who is experiencing her first year in coaching, has also utilized the staff at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired as a source of information, guidance and best practices.

“I spent a lot of time reviewing videos and talking with the coaches at their campus in Austin to get ideas on how to work with Ilen,” Shelton said. “She is one of the most intelligent and talented students I know. She goes above and beyond in her classes, in choir and her sport. She is always early to practice and ready to go—with a positive attitude.”

“When I first started working with her, honestly, I was like a mother hen,” Shelton said. “I was afraid not to hold on to her arm or walk her everywhere. But I learned very quickly that once she was taught and had some time to practice things, such as how many steps to get into the pool or how many steps to the shower at Splash Station, she was fine. I was amazed and blown away by her ability to do so many things by herself or with very little help. I have never seen her upset—she is positive about everything. She is great to joke with on the bus and always makes you laugh.”

Shelton admits to being nervous as Valdez stepped up to the pool to compete at her first major meet back in October.

“I was more nervous than she was,” Shelton said. “When she finished the last 25 yards, the crowd and the other athletes were clapping and cheering so loud, I had tears rolling down my face. It was so inspirational.”  

Valdez is quick to point out that swimming is not her first encounter with sports, but one in a series of “experiences” as a participant in Camp Abilities, a sports camp for students who are blind, visually impaired and deafblind. Numerous experiences have also come from her attendance at TSBVI, where she took ballet as a first and second grader and studied the violin for two years.

“I’m pretty much an athletic person,” she said. “I just do it in different ways. I like to have the experience, more than being competitive.”

“My favorite moments from this season have been having fun and making new friends,” Valdez said.  “The hardest part has been learning a new stroke. It may take me a while to master it, but I don’t give up. I try and give it my all. I love to learn.”

Valdez has been blind since birth, relating to two conditions involving the underdevelopment of the optic nerves. She wears glasses to protect her eyes, which she says are very sensitive.

“But I can hear really, really well,” Valdez said. “I’m a very auditory person, so I prefer the vocal guidance from my coaches when I’m practicing or racing. I also swim in the lane closest to the edge of the pool to give me a better idea of where I am going.”

When asked what she has learned about herself through this newest experience, Valdez has an immediate answer.

“Things might be complicated, but I still try it,” she said. “I don’t give up. I have zero tolerance for that—I don’t give up.”

Valdez’ involvement at CHS also includes student leadership, Student Council and three years in choir. She has perfect pitch, which she believes will be a great help in achieving her dream of a career as a choir teacher. Valdez was awarded a gold medal on her solo at the UIL District Solo and Ensemble Contest as a sophomore. She is now working on her music in preparation for the upcoming competition. She is also learning how to read music in braille.

“Ilen is amazing,” CHS Choir Director Weslee Vance said. “She is one of a kind and a very dedicated student. She’s always singing—or dancing—when she is in my class. All the kids in choir love her and are very protective of her. She gets around school on her own just fine, but there is always someone who wants to walk with her.”

With the District swim meet now behind her, Valdez will continue to report to the pool for early morning practice along with the rest of the team. Eight Jackets will be competing at the Regional Meet taking place Monday and Tuesday at the Mansfield ISD Natatorium.  

“I appreciate all the support I’ve received from my teammates and peers,” Valdez said. “Their positive words have helped me be a better person.”

Vernon says her student’s latest “experience” has been a good one, in several ways.

“I’m proud of Ilen in knowing what she wants to do and pursuing it until she achieves it,” Vernon said. “She has definitely set goals for herself. I also like that our teachers and students are beginning to hear and notice what she is doing. It is raising awareness as to what any, and all, of our students can do if they set their minds to it—and when teachers are there to give help and support.”

Shelton says she has learned a lot from her “experience” with Valdez.

“After witnessing her determination, independence and spirit, I came away with the attitude, ‘If Ilen can do it, so can I,’” Shelton said. “Nothing I do is hard compared to what she does every day. Not only has she been an inspiration to me personally, but my family—spouse, sister, daughter, parents, aunts and uncles—are beyond inspired by her. Every day I get to work with Ilen is a blessing.”