Tessa Brown, 7, moves through the water like a mermaid. She twists and turns; she comes up for breath and dives back in. She swims through hoops and grabs diving toys. She spins around and touches the ground.
She is free, joyous.
"It feels good," she says. "I can do a handstand in the water."
She figured out how to do that in her friend's pool.
"I just did it," she says.
On land, Tessa uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, or she has a prosthetic arm to help her scoot her torso.
Tessa was born differently limbed: a full left arm, a right arm that ends above the elbow and no legs.
She began learning to swim when she was 2. In September she passed the swim test, something most kids don't pass until they are 8 or 9.
Tessa began taking swim lessons after her mom, Meagan Brown, called the YMCA in Buda to find out about the swim lessons through the Y's Special Needs Adaptive Program. Meagan Brown knew about the program because her older son, Elias, uses a prosthetic leg and has been on the YMCA swim team. He also participates in wheelchair basketball. The SNAP program also has instruction in dance, gymnastics, fitness and Paralympic sports.
Initially Brown was told that Tessa was too young, that they usually don't start kids until they are 3 or older. "Oh, never mind; I'll call you in a few years," Meagan Brown remembers saying.
Jackie Reilly, a Special Needs Adaptive Program coordinator at the Y, thought about it and decided to start Tessa anyway. "I thought it was the right thing to do," she says.
In the water, Tessa can do things that have been more difficult on land. She learned how to climb up and down stairs by first climbing up and down the steps into the kiddie pool at the YMCA.
"Tessa is so free in the water," Meagan Brown says. "In one sense, it's a level playing field."
The handstand didn't come all at once. For the first six months to a year, Reilly worked on Tessa staying upright. She had to develop core strength to lift herself up and to float safely. She worked on sitting on Reilly's knee and holding herself up.
Tessa and Reilly also would sit on the steps of the pool and figure out what her body could do.
She was advancing, although Reilly says, "We didn't really use the same metrics as we do in regular swim class. Then at some point, Tessa started doing all the same things all of the other kids were doing."
As Y members watched Tessa's lessons each week, she developed a following. "They were so happy, so proud of you," Reilly tells Tessa.
Then last spring, Tessa announced she wanted to pass the swim test. She would have to jump into the water, tread water, float, swim half the length of the pool, turn around and swim again, and she'd have to be able to get herself out of the pool."
One of the things Reilly worried about was how was Tessa going to get out of the pool without using the steps or another person helping her.
Tessa figured it out. She swims to the corner of the pool and props her left arm on the cement pool deck and swings her torso onto the pool deck.
Tessa has figured out a lot of things. Sister Merin, 8, and Tessa have worked together to get Tessa up and down playground equipment and to access stuff throughout the house. Sometimes Merin stands on the back of Tessa's wheelchair to reach something.
"It's a really amazing relationship," Meagan Brown says.
Brown says that often occupational therapists or physical therapists will suggest an adaptive technique for Tessa, but then Tessa will figure out on her own how to do it even easier.
"A lot of what we've done is trial and error," Meagan Brown says.
The Browns adopted Tessa in 2013, when she was 14 months old. They had been looking for a child with limb differences, and they had experience adopting from Ethiopia with son Elias. Merin is their biological child.
Father Chase Brown builds prosthetics as a certified prosthetic orthotist with Capital Prosthetics & Orthotics. He became interested in prosthetics when he was 13 and saw another boy skateboarding using a prosthetic leg. Meagan Brown works as the operations manager for Capital Prosthetics & Orthotics.
The Browns had decided they wanted to adopt someone with limb differences and had put out feelers five years before the adoption agency in Ethiopia found them to tell them about Tessa. She was 7 months old, but it took another 7 months to go through all the paperwork.
"I was just born that way; that's what we know," Tessa says of her body.
Meagan Brown says her daughter sees all the other kids and what they can do. Instead of Tessa agonizing about what she isn't doing, "She's really content where she is," Meagan Brown says. "She has the disposition to figure out what she can do. She's not less than anyone else."
That doesn't mean she doesn't try to do what the other kids are doing. "If she gets word of anyone doing something, she's saying, 'I'm going to do it,'" Meagan Brown says.
And then she figures out a way. "She's really creative."
The Browns have become spokespeople for the YMCA and have consulted on the new Camp Moody on Onion Creek in Buda that will be accessible for kids like Tessa, Elias and for Merin, too, from hiking paths to wheelchair-compatible bunks.
"The Y really pursues access to all people as a priority, not as an afterthought," Meagan Brown says. "They set the pace for other organizations to follow."
Now that she's passed the swim test, Tessa's next swim goal is to go down the outdoor pool slide.
When it comes to swimming, "she absolutely loves it," Meagan Brown says. "It was so good for her."
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