A Winning Heart
by Christi Cowan
Adele Brandrup doesn’t let anything stop her from achieving her goals. At age 18, she just competed in the Move United Junior Nationals para swimming competition in Colorado.
Alongside her teammates from the Lakeshore Foundation, and through four grueling days of competition, Adele swam the 50m, 100m, 200m, and 400m Freestyle, as well as, the 100m Breaststroke and Backstroke. Incredibly, Adele set a personal record in the breaststroke, which is hard to do with the high altitude in Colorado. The field was full of experienced athletes including Paralympians who competed in the 2016 Paralympics* in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and in the 2021 Tokyo games. "We had the largest cheering group in the stands," said Adele. It felt so good to be able to support each other!"
Adele learned to swim at the age of four at the Lakeshore Foundation, a Paralympic training site where she trains year-round. Adele competes as a vision impaired athlete, as she is Deafblind as a result of having CHARGE syndrome, a rare and complex disability that varies greatly from person
When Adele and her family learned that the Lakeshore Foundation participates in local competitive swim meets, she was ready to jump right in. The swim events happen at the Birmingham Crossplex, and the meets include swimmers of typical ability as well as those with disabilities. "In the last year we've found that the local teams want to include people with disabilities,” said her mother, Julie, “so they’re learning how to accommodate, whether that’s to provide a ramp, or in Adele’s case, they provide a tactile start.” Using a tactile start allows Adele to be tapped on her shoulder and leg to indicate when to get into place on the block and when to dive in the water, as a replacement for the buzzer sound. Sometimes she uses a strobe light as an indicator.
Julie appreciates how much the local swim teams have embraced Adele, the only vision impaired competitor at the local meets, and Adele's para teammates, the only wheelchair users. “It has been really great to see that the teams who aren’t used to competing with people with disabilities becoming more aware of what their needs are, and these swimmers are just as competitive as anybody else," Julie said. "They swim their events, then they cheer on their teammates.” According to Julie, swimming has definitely had a positive impact on Adele’s life. “This keeps her very busy and it also gives her goals and something to look forward to and like-minded people to do it with,” Julie said. “She’s just much happier and healthier.”
Jumping Into Junior Nationals
After competing in several local swim meets, Adele became interested in traveling to para-specific swim meets. These are national competitions in which her challengers are para swimmers of all disabilities and from all over the country. Adele began as the only traveling competitive swimmer from Lakeshore, but in the last three years, the Lakeshore swim team has grown to include eight traveling para swimmers.
This year was Adele’s third time to qualify for the Junior Nationals para swimming meet. One of the instructors who taught Adele to swim is now her coach. "She is a big part of my success and our growing team's success," said Adele. Not only does Adele enjoy competing, but she also enjoys the camaraderie that meets like these provide. “I like Nationals because I get to see friends from other places and we have a lot in common.”
If you're already not impressed at Adele's accomplishments, get ready. Adele has recently expanded her focus into paratriathlons. Last summer, she attended a camp where she had her first taste of the event, which includes a 500-meter swim, a 12-mile bike ride, and a 5k run. This adaptive version is referred to as a sprint triathlon and is shorter than a standard triathlon. It’s also one of the races she competed in while she was at the Junior Nationals.
Adele likes the open water swims because there are no restrictive walls, and she loves going fast on the bike. To ensure that the competitors are safe during the sprint triathlon, each vision impaired competitor is provided with a guide. For the swim portion of the race, Adele would be tethered to a sighted guide with about two feet of rope between them. Then, she joins the guide on a tandem bicycle where the guide's role is visual pilot in charge of steering so that Adele can focus on pedaling as fast as possible. Finally, Adele is tethered again for the 5k run. “People think that triathlons are hard, but I really enjoy pushing myself and learning new things," she said.
Together at Dawson
As with any disability, being born with CHARGE syndrome comes with many challenges. But being Deafblind has never deterred Adele or her family. Just before Adele began the 1st Grade, Julie felt it would be helpful to visit Dawson, for Adele and for her younger sister, Margo. “I just liked the idea of them being able to be in Sunday School and for both to have a place to go. ” Julie said. The Hearts & Hands ministry would turn out to be a wonderful resource. They visited with the Hearts & Hands coordinator at that time to get a preview of how the ministry would work. "She just made us feel so welcome and so we couldn't wait to start."
The family was familiar with Dawson already. Julie had frequented the Family Recreation Center while attending Samford University and had attended worship services regularly with friends. When Adele was born and diagnosed with CHARGE syndrome, she spent three months in the hospital.
During that time, a friend connected Julie and her husband, Jay, to Neal Schooley, who was then serving as Dawson's Executive Pastor. Neal visited them in the hospital. “He didn’t know us at all, but his visits were just so nice,” Julie said. “He just knew how to listen, and he knew what to say without saying much.”
In the summer before her 6th Grade year, Adele attended KidLife (which had an Olympic theme that year!) and also another VBS for Deaf and hard of hearing kids. It was then that Adele accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. Her baptism was planned for the next month and was held after morning worship. Many of Adele’s friends and family members were in attendance. “Everyone stood on the stage so I could see them, and my cousins and sister led a song. Half the people knew sign language and everyone else just sang along,” Adele said. “My baptism was a very special day.”
A Helping Hand
When Adele isn’t busy with swimming, she enjoys spending her Sunday mornings helping out in the Hearts & Hands room. She also volunteered with the ministry during KidLife this year, despite having just returned from a swim meet in the wee hours of the first morning. Adele applauds Hearts & Hands Coordinator Ruth Ann Turner for giving her a place where she can have a positive impact. Ruth Ann tries to make sure that every buddy who is assigned to a child is a good match, and Adele likes knowing exactly how she can help. “If someone is in a wheelchair, I like getting them where they need to be,” she said. “If someone needs a break from loud noise, I like that I can help them take a break in the Hearts & Hands room.”
Because she has her own experience with a disability, Adele is able to connect with younger disabled people in a unique and personal way. Several Hearts & Hands participants use an augmentative communication device, commonly referred to as "talkers" to communicate. This is great for Adele, because she is already familiar with that device and used one herself. Adele uses her disability to help others and wants to be a positive role model for other kids with disabilities.
Just For Fun
When she's not training, Adele doesn't have a whole lot of spare time, but just like every other teenage girl, she enjoys texting with her friends. Adele’s communication needs have changed over the years. During her elementary school years, she used a talker. Currently she uses American Sign Language (ASL) at school. When chatting with friends who don’t know ASL, Adele spends a lot of time texting or writing notes. She can lip read some and will occasionally speak orally to people with whom she’s more familiar. At home, the family typically uses cued speech to communicate. Cued speech is a method in which the speaker uses handshapes to form phonemic codes for sounds.
When asked about other activities she enjoys, Adele said, "Adding the triathlon competitions has been fun this year and I have been running and riding a stationary bike at Lakeshore more often. This summer, I went to a camp specifically for college-bound deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It was three weeks in Huntsville, and it was good practice for independence. I also like to read books. Most of my favorites are about people overcoming challenging circumstances. I just finished reading Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law. I also like to watch funny videos on YouTube."
Now that the Junior Nationals para swimming competition has concluded, Adele is focused on school. This fall, she will be entering her senior year at Homewood High School, where she will continue to swim with her school's swim team. She will also keep training at Lakeshore and participating in local meets with them. "There are not many vision impaired athletes competing out there and that is something I hope will change. And there are definitely not many athletes who are both deaf and vision impaired. It is hard but it is fun, and competing makes me feel like I can do anything!"
There's even more exciting news for Adele and the Lakeshore swim team for 2023. "The team is excited about next year because the Move United Junior Nationals recently announced it will be held in Birmingham next summer! Over 250 athletes usually participate in the various sporting events."
When asked about the Paralympics, Adele says she will make that call when the time is right. "For now, I'm going to concentrate on fall swim meets with my high school and hopefully going to Para Nationals this December. Since I am a senior in high school, I have a lot of things to figure out."
Adele has already been accepted to attend the University of Montevallo and is considering swimming competitively in college. “Many colleges are now working with adaptive athletes so that could be exciting,” she said. She’s also interested in a career that would let her work with people who have disabilities, perhaps in a school or sports setting. One thing is for sure: she’s not letting anything get in her way. “It can be hard at times, but I am determined to go past the challenges,” she said. “I don’t think about my disability much. I am just a girl, a person who is Deafblind, going through life.”
Adele may say that she's "just a girl going through life" but she is truly so much more. She’s a fierce and strong competitor who won’t let anything keep her from achieving her goals. She's a friend who's always willing to lend a helping hand. She is an inspiration to us all. In a word, Adele is extraordinary.
Christi Cowan has been on Dawson's staff as a graphic designer since 2017. She holds a Master’s degree from The University of Alabama with a concentration in journalism. In her free time, she likes to read, watch movies, and spend time with her cats. She loves all things Disney and will probably beat you at Disney trivia.