Unparalleled Athlete

Meet Claire Forrest, a Southwest High swimmer whose determination has qualified her for an international competition

Lynnhurst resident Claire Forrest is a 15-year-old Southwest High freshman. Like many teens, she keeps busy hanging out with friends and with hobbies like playing the piano and downhill skiing. But most of all, she loves to swim.

While these may seem like average activities for an active kid, for Forrest, they've required an intense focus and determination that her swimming coaches say sets her apart from the rest.

Forrest has Cerebral Palsy - or, as she calls it, &#8220CP.” &#8220When I was born, my brain was damaged, [which] causes tighter muscles,” she explained.

Forrest's mom, Melinda Benjamin, said her daughter has endured nearly 15 years of constant physical therapy and difficulty learning how to walk. For her part, the driven Forrest said her condition &#8220is no big deal to me.”

Dave Cameron, head coach for the Uptown YWCA's Otters Swim Team, has been coaching and teaching Forrest since fall 2004.

He said, &#8220Claire came to us as kind of a rigid swimmer,” quickly adding that &#8220she's definitely one of the most driven swimmers we've got.”

Cameron said her training focused on aerobic work and swimming form - and now, all her hard work is paying off.

At a recent meet, Forrest achieved her loftiest goal yet: swimming the 50-meter backstroke in 1 minute, 4 seconds, qualifying her for the Paralympics Open Championships Dec. 8-10 at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. The international event brings athletes with physical disabilities from around the world to compete.

Claire's aquatic story

Benjamin said her daughter learned how to walk at the Sister Kenny Institute's warm water pool in South Minneapolis.

&#8220She gained her confidence to walk there,” her mother said, and it's where Forrest's love of swimming grew.

Forrest then began swimming at the Courage Center, a Golden Valley-based nonprofit focused on empowering and rehabilitating people with physical disabilities.

Four years ago, the then-11-year-old Forrest received a flier about a swimming meet and attended to swim the backstroke (her favorite stroke). She said she was intimidated at first, seeing all of the professional swimmers and their swim caps - which Forrest had never used. More fundamentally, the pool had noticeably colder water, which tightens Forrest's muscles, due to spasticity, Benjamin said.

Of her first competition, Forrest said, &#8220I got pretty scared doing it. I grabbed the lane line like three times.”

Despite the initial jitters, Forrest said she's grown to love swimming and competing.

&#8220You can use all your muscles,” she said. &#8220It's exciting. It really sets you apart from other people. It's just a lot of fun, too. You get to know your teammates so well.”

Forrest joined the YWCA Otters in fall 2004. This fall, she joined the swim team at Southwest High, 3414 W. 47th St.

Pam Georgetti, the head coach of the school's boys and girls swim teams, said Forrest is an extremely motivated athlete with the right swimming mechanics, who never lets her physical limitations dampen her spirit - &#8220such a terrific kid.”

Even before Forrest started high school, she was already preparing for the challenges that lay ahead. In August, Forrest was chosen to attend the Paralympics Academy in Colorado, based on an essay she wrote. The annual event brings together kids from across the country to work with professional coaches in clinics and focus on leadership.

Beth Bourgeois, manager of communications for the U.S. Paralympics said the academy focuses on athletics, but main idea is to teach participants about &#8220disability responsibility,” or to educate others about disabilities and the Paralympic games.

The Paralympic Academy is an outreach of the United States Paralympics; a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee focused on giving athletes with physical disabilities a chance to compete. The Paralympic Games are held at the same time and in the same place as the Winter and Summer Olympics, the only other world events comparable to the Paralympics in size.

Forrest said at the academy, she met athletes with disabilities who have become successful in their sport, which changed her outlook about her CP.

&#8220I didn't used to be so open,” she said about discussing her condition. &#8220After the Paralympic Academy I thought, ‘why have I been hiding for so long?'”

Now, she said, she's open when people ask her questions about her disability.

Unrelenting determination

The new outlook seems to have only strengthened Forrest's determination. To qualify for the December Paralympics meet, Forrest had to shave crucial seconds off of her race time for the 50-meter backstroke.

Cameron said Forrest was swimming the 50-meter course in about one and half minutes last fall, but after hard work and just in time (no pun intended) she shaved 26 seconds off her time to qualify for the national event. &#8220It's unprecedented swimming,” the coach said.

Of competing on swim teams such as Southwest's, Forrest admitted, &#8220Everybody's faster than me.”

She said there are not many people with similar physical conditions to compete against, so she must sometimes travel. However, she said that she focuses on setting her own qualifying times for meets like the December meet.

Her determination is inspiring. She practices almost every day of the week with various coaches, along with continuing physical therapy. &#8220Claire, from the moment she joined, didn't take any time off,” Cameron said.

Cameron said that early in her training with him she had to overcome fatigue and sensitivity to cold water, in addition to building aerobic movement. He said that she's always been receptive to constructive criticism and eager to improve.

At Southwest, Georgetti echoes Cameron's praise of Forrest's determination and dedication. &#8220I've always seen her so focused on what she has to do,” she said.

Georgetti said that at the school's meets, the team as well as the parents - and even the other schools' announcers - end up rallying around Forrest.

Despite her talent and international qualifying slot, Forrest said she has no aspirations to be in the Paralympic Games; she hopes to become a writer and author. She said she's concentrating on her upcoming meet and her high school career.

&#8220I just like to work hard at something. I'm like everybody else. There's some days I don't want to of to practice, but I do it because I know I'm going to get something out of it,” Forrest said in a soft, humble voice.

&#8220I think it's just the way she is,” Benjamin said of her daughter. &#8220She's faced a lot of struggles and overcome so much.”

Teaching others

While Forrest has grown as a swimmer through this year, her coaches say that she's also helped them to grow as educators working with athletes who have disabilities.

Benjamin said she's been very impressed with how open and supportive the YWCA and Southwest coaches have been to working with her daughter.

Georgetti said she feels that sports are very important to girls, so despite the challenges, she was glad to have Claire. Still, the coach she said that she needed to make adjustments. Recalling her mental preparation, Georgetti said she told herself, &#8220All right, I'm going to have to learn how to coach someone I've never coached.”

Cameron said he, too, has learned a lot working with Forrest. He said that she has given him experience in working with athletes with physical disabilities, which has been helpful in training others - such as a wheelchair tri-athlete.

In addition to teaching her coaches, Forrest has spurred team spirit.

&#8220She's definitely been a role model to a lot of swimmers,” Cameron said of Forrest's effect on the team. &#8220The rest of the team gets up and cheers when Claire is swimming.”