Aug. 20, 2013 at 7:53 AM ET
You might sit on the sidelines of life. Pat Knisely believes you don’t have to stay there.
“Look at me. Look at me!” she whispers, consoling a crying child. The 4-year-old shivers by the side of a swimming pool, crouching in the darkness of his mind.
His swimming teacher plops a towel on her head, sparking a fleeting smile from the frightened boy. “Now remember,” Knisely says, “I’m old and —
The boy grins. “Tired.”
“That’s right. So you have to take it easy on me!”
All the kids at the side of the pool, waiting for their lesson, begin to giggle, including the tearful little boy. “Come on. Jump in!” Pat says. The childhood storm has passed.
In a city surrounded by sea, Knisely wants every child to learn how to swim. She has taught thousands of kids in New Bern, N.C.
Lindsay Sobel still remembers the “Ms. Pat” look that got her into the pool. The 26-year-old tugs her glasses down and frowns over the top of the lenses. “She looked like this,” she laughs, recalling when she was a stubborn 7-year-old.
“You don’t have to be a winner,” Lindsay’s mom, Joan Sobel, tells me. “You just have to learn to swim right.”
Lindsay did better than all right, even though she has Down syndrome. “This one’s my favorite,” she says, pulling a gold medal off her wall to show me. She has won 78 state and national championships.
“I’m good!” Lindsay says simply. Good because Knisely listens closely to children like Lindsay, who are often overlooked.
“She never took one of them to the side,” Kristen Wall confides. “Never said, ‘Oh, you’re different. You’re going to have your own private lesson.’”
Wall, a biologist, now trains with dolphins. She learned to swim with Lindsay. Neither was treated like fragile glass.
Knisley knows the pain of a life turned inward. Multiple sclerosis put her in a wheelchair 20 years ago.
“I can’t imagine living my life with out MS,” she says. “You learn a lot about who you are.”
Like most winners, Pat Knisely doesn’t give up, but how she handles loss is perhaps her finest lesson. In 2012, her husband, Jim, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The boy she met at 16 and married at 18 was given just a few months to live. …
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