Parapan American Games To Mark The Next Milestone For Rising Swimmer Abby Kershaw
by Karen Price
There is no hesitation in Abby Kershaw’s answer when asked about her favorite memory from a Para swim meet.
It was just this past spring when she was part of the American record-setting, gold medal-winning 4x100-meter medley relay at the Citi Para Swimming World Series meet in Minneapolis.
“The relays are actually my favorite, more than any other stroke,” she said. “I get pumped up when my teammates are there.”
Kershaw, 19, may have a new favorite memory before the month is out. She’s one of 33 athletes who will represent the United States at the 2023 Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile, beginning Nov. 17.
Kershaw started swimming at the age of 12. Her parents had tried different activities, including dance, running and team sports, but nothing clicked until they got to swimming.
“I liked being around the pool, and the kids,” she said.
It would be three years before the family learned that Abby was eligible to compete in Para swimming.
“We had no idea, because she’s not missing limbs, she’s not an amputee, she’s not blind and some people think that’s what Para is,” said Mary Kershaw, Abby’s mother. “Like it’s only for people in wheelchairs or something, which she’s not.”
Abby’s particular disability is incredibly rare. When she was in utero, she was diagnosed with agenesis corpus callosum, a disorder in which the tissue connecting the right and left sides of the brain is partially or completely missing. After the diagnosis, her birth mother decided she would not be able to care for Abby, and she was adopted by Mary and Dale Kershaw.
“That’s when we got this little miracle girl,” Mary said. “We’ve been truly blessed.”
Abby was also diagnosed with Joubert syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterized by abnormal brain development that affects only 5,000 people in the U.S., Dale said.
The diagnoses manifest in visual impairments — Abby is severely nearsighted and wears special goggles in the pool to help her see — as well as intellectual and other physical impairments, including coordination.
“So there are many disabilities going on at the same time,” Mary said.
None of that stops her from being active and training. In addition to swimming, Abby competed in her first triathlon this summer.
“I dedicated it to my friend who has Down syndrome,” Abby said of the race.
Dale believes the cross-training is beneficial.
“Because it gets her to use different muscles and different parts of her mind,” he said. “But swimming is her main thing.”
Training can be a challenge. Abby is homeschooled and works out at the gym regularly with her mother and practices with her club team. But leading up to Para meets, she needs time to adjust to the 50-meter pool and the difference from the 25-meter pool in which she usually swims. The closest 50-meter pool is over an hour away, so it means a lot of travel time.
“And it’s not cheap,” Dale said. “But it’s worth it.”
Finding a coach has also been difficult, Mary said.
“Not many coaches that understand intellectual impairments,” she said. “You can’t just put a workout up on the board and say, ‘Here, do this.’ It has to be someone who’s attentive and understanding. So we’ve been shopping around. We’ve been to a lot of different places, and we found one that fit but, like Dale was saying, it’s a distance.”
After the World Series meet, where Abby also won a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle, her parents noticed a difference.
“When she got the American record and won a couple medals you could see her confidence increase,” Mary said. “Another thing is the friendships she’s developed. She has friends in England, friends in other states, all because of Para swimming. That helps socially, and it helps her build confidence and be motivated because she wants to go to these meets and see her friends.”
Abby will be swimming in the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley and the 200-meter freestyle in Santiago. She hopes to compete at the Paralympics in Los Angeles in 2028. She also wants to bring awareness to her diagnoses, in particular agenesis corpus callosum.
Mary said she belongs to a national group for those affected by disorders of the corpus callosum and, to their knowledge, Abby is the first in the U.S. with her condition to get this far with the sport.
“I sent out a post to all of them and hundreds of people started sharing their congratulations,” she said. “There was one other person they knew of who did cross country, but nobody’s done swimming with her condition. At least not that anybody’s aware of.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.