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Panthers’ diver Watkins overcomes impairment

Maple Grove sophomore Elora Watkins competes for the Panama/Maple Grove/Clymer swim team while being legally blind. Photo by Nicole Johnson

Elora Watkins stands on a diving board and, when she’s ready, takes eight strides forward. As she nears the end of the board, she turns 180 degrees, steadies herself and performs a backward dive.

To the casual observer who is watching that cellphone video for the first time, the execution is well done.

But that’s not why the 19-second clip is being shared. Rather, it is done to remind viewers that, equipped with just the right mindset, anything is possible.

You see, Elora, the 15-year-old member of the Panama/Maple Grove/Clymer swim team, is legally blind.

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Elora Watkins tucks in during a dive for the Panama/Maple Grove/Clymer swim team during a meet in Fredonia. Photo by Nicole Johnson

Swimming is a big part of the Watkins’ family. Elora’s father, Charlie, was a record-setting swimmer during his days at Jamestown High School. Elora’s mother, Leah, is an assistant coach on the current P/MG/C team.

“It’s definitely in the Watkins’ DNA,” Leah said.

Other things are figuratively stored in Elora’s DNA, too, some which can’t be measured or quantified. Although visually impaired since she was 2 due to an inoperable brain tumor, the Maple Grove High School sophomore hasn’t let that deter her from experiencing and accomplishing anything she has put her mind to.

“Probably the greatest strength Elora has is her ability to set goals that most people would consider challenges,” Leah said.

For example, at 4, she learned to play the violin; she’s been a member of the Jamestown Jets swim team for the last seven years; she has taken ballet lessons; and, most recently, she participated in the choreographed jump-rope routine in the summer countywide high school musical.

Panama/Maple Grove/Clymer's Elora Watkins. Photo by Nicole Johnson

“Her Jets coaches and her high school coaches tell her to set achievable goals and she always sets them a notch above, or many notches above, and just works tirelessly to achieve them,” Leah said. “Part of that, I believe, is wanting to show that being visually impaired is not a disability that keeps her from living life to the fullest.”

For example, her swimming events for P/MG/C include the 200-yard medley relay, the 400-yard freestyle relay and the 200-freestyle relay. When she’s not diving at a particular meet, Elora competes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles and the 100-yard breaststroke as well, using the line that is painted on the bottom of the pool as her guide.

“I can see when (the line) is ending. That means the wall is coming up,” she said. “After swimming for so long, you know approximately how long a pool is. You get the sense the wall is coming up. It took me some time in the beginning to figure out the flip turn. … I use that guessing system and it hasn’t failed me. … In the pool, I truly don’t need sight to swim.”

But diving for the first time while being legally blind? One would think that would be a next-to-impossible task.

Not to Elora.

“Last season, she was working on getting the feel of the board and working on her approaches,” Leah said. “In order to compete (at meets), she had to have at least six dives, so acquiring the skills for six different dives has been the focus this particular swim season. She’s not planning on quitting anytime soon. I envision her continuing on that path, gaining the different skills so she can be an 11-dive competitor.”

Nicole Johnson, an assistant coach for P/MG/C, is amazed by Elora.

“She has the bravery to get on the board and just do the dive,” Nicole said. “And if she smacks, she just gets back up and does it again. The strength that it takes, physically and mentally, is just remarkable.”

Pre-dive, Elora is able to know where she is by the feeling of the rough board against her feet. She also places her hands on the bars on either side of the board, which allows her to know how far she is from its end.

“It’s all about how it feels,” she said. “Then I listen to the feedback from the coaches, too. … I always say the water is a gift and a curse.”

And sometimes, it serves as motivation.

A couple weeks ago, Elora’s challenge was to successfully complete dives that had given her trouble in the past.

“I knew that going into the meet, but at the same time I knew I could finish the dive and make it somewhat of a legal dive,” she said. “With that in mind, and doing a couple of practice runs on the board, I knew the best thing for that moment was to just go for it. Even if it meant a failed dive or a low score I just needed to go for it, so I could have a starting point.

“As (P/MG/C head coach Kelsey Powers told me, ‘The only way to go from a failed dive is up.'”

Guess what?

Elora completed the dive.

“It’s that mental fortitude, that drive that she has,” Leah said. “And it’s not just athletics. It’s everything she does.”

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An honor student at Maple Grove, Elora’s early thoughts on life after high school are to pursue a dual major in communication and language, specifically Spanish.

“I really want to travel to places like Spain to have an immersive experience,” she said.

In other words, Elora plans to continue to “dive” into everything, just as she’s learned to do her entire life.

Leah paid special homage to Jeannie Anderson and Sue Billgren, who have worked with Elora for years and have helped forge that never-give-up mentality.

“Jeannie (a teacher for the visually impaired), in particular, has really instilled in Elora that sense of self-advocating, and she introduced us to the Camp Abilities, a camp for the visually impaired that originated at (SUNY) Brockport, but is now worldwide,” Leah said. “And Sue learned braille, so that she could do more for Elora as a teacher aide and student aide. They played a huge role just supporting Elora and just emphasizing to her that she is capable. They believe in her and present opportunities that have been significant in her development.”

Maria Roehmholdt, a coach with the Jamestown Jets, recalled the time the program hosted an invitational meet at Jamestown High School.

“The pool deck was moved around, there were a lot more people there, more ropes and obstacles, so she brought her (white) cane with her,” Maria said. “The lifeguard wanted to know why she pretended to be blind. The lifeguard had known her for five years at that point in time and had no earthly clue that she was visually challenged.

“That’s a testament to Elora.”

And if the definition of “testament” is “a statement of belief,” it seems only fitting to end Elora’s remarkable story with this:

“A disability is not a limitation,” she said. “The only thing that a disability disables is what that specific disability is. If you’re deaf, the only thing you can’t do is hear well. If you’re visibly impaired, the only thing you can’t do well is see perfectly. Those are the only things that will ever disable. Everything else? If you can’t do it, push yourself. Even if people say you can’t, just keep advocating for yourself. Eventually you’ll get there.”

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