Disabled Oklahoma teen finds hope in swimming
By JACOB UNRUH
Mar. 05, 2018
HARRAH, Okla. (AP) — Gabby Clabes drops into the blue water for what appears to be an eternity as other racers step onto the starting block.
Clabes comes up, regains her senses and holds onto the pool's edge. In seconds, she's pushing off the wall with her right leg and using her arms to catch the other divers.
It's tough to notice she's supposed to be at a disadvantage.
"Technically, I should be a lot slower than what I am," Clabes said smiling.
A 17-year-old senior at Choctaw High School missing part of her left leg, Clabes finds hope in a pool.
She's faced around a dozen surgeries and depression. She's tried moving on from the water. Through all of that, her disability has become her strength.
"Truthfully, swimming has kept my drive going," Clabes said. "It gives me a reason to know that everything is going to be OK, because swimming really does keep me walking."
That's why her teammates and others will find inspiration when she takes off her prosthetic leg and slides into the pool this weekend before her final race at the Class 6A state swim meet.
"Everybody told her it couldn't be done," Clabes' mom Sandy said. "It's like the bigger the obstacle the harder she works."
Sandy Clabes was advised to abort.
She was 43 and pregnant with Gabby, her third child. Test results showed Gabby had three degenerative conditions that would affect the growth of her bones and brain, The Oklahoman reported.
Sandy, a nurse, stopped going to those doctors as she and her husband turned to prayer.
"They made me mad," she said. "We were going to have her anyway."
When Gabby was born, it was only her left leg that was affected by proximal femoral focal deficiency, a rare birth defect that results in the hip being deformed and the leg shortened.
She had just 20 percent of her femur, no knee and a fully developed foot. Faced with a tough decision to amputate or attempt lengthening exercises that had no guarantee of success, the Clabes elected to amputate a year later and work to help Gabby one day walk.
Gabby underwent nine various surgeries through her childhood as doctors fused her tibia and fibula with the femur to support a prosthetic leg.
It was her recovery that led to a meeting with Gwena Dixon in a pool for therapy.
Dixon, now the head coach for both Harrah and Choctaw girls swim teams, found inspiration in the little blonde girl who wanted to prove people wrong.
She, in turn, gave Gabby motivation.
"I guess I was a big help," Dixon said. "I don't feel that way. I just did what I love to do and I love to help kids become the best they can be. She's such an amazing young woman."
Gabby began swimming competitively until she had another major surgery at 9 years old.
Swimming was not an option for a long period. Depression followed. Gabby soon started to question everything to her parents.
Why continue going through this?
Why had God done this?
They assured her that she could handle this. Her disability was not an excuse.
"They always told me how strong I am mentally, but on top of that they wanted me to be strong physically and healthy, basically just defy every odd possible," Gabby said.
Gabby Clabes needed to be healthy and that's where Gwena Dixon excelled.
Clabes had undergone another major surgery on her hip when she was 15. Volleyball and golf had not worked. Swimming was therapy outside of the Endeavor Games.
Now, Clabes wanted to be competitive year-round.
She, Dixon and friend Jaidyn Hightower went to the Choctaw school board with a proposal to form a swim team that would partner with Dixon's Harrah teams. A year later, Clabes and Hightower were the lone team members.
"Gwena had helped me so much as a person that I felt it wouldn't only benefit me but the people around me," Clabes said. "For me to be healthy and to be active and to be happy, I knew that I would be a better person all around."
Clabes swam the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyles. She overworked her upper body to make up for her leg.
"It's an amazing experience every time I get to see it happen," Hightower said. "She does an amazing thing every time she gets in the water."
Last year as a junior, Clabes qualified for the state meet when Choctaw had four team members. This year, the team is up to nine members.
She returns to the state meet a member of the 400-yard freestyle relay team. She opted not to compete individually as a sign of unity for the growing team.
Either way, she's still in the pool inspiring.
"To be able to go to state and challenge myself at that level, it gives me hope to tell myself that I'm doing OK," Clabes said. "It gave me hope to see that I was able to compete on a level that nobody expected me to."
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com