Skyview Swimmer Sets Sight on Future

Junior does not let vision loss keep her from her dreams

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter



Shelby Kappler wants to clear something up: She was not ignoring you that day.

You looked her square in the eye, gave a friendly wave to someone you thought was a friendly classmate, only to watch her blow you off like you were a yield sign.

Don’t take it personally. Kappler has Stargardt disease — a genetic eye disorder that causes acute vision loss — and she simply didn’t see you.

“Will you please tell people that I’m not trying to be rude?” Kappler pleads.

Girls swimming


Melanie Anderson, so., Columbia River; Ada Beale, jr., Seton Catholic; Monica Bottelberghe, so., Columbia River; Alice Chang, so., Union; Clare Ellis, sr., Skyview; Julia Sanders, jr., Hockinson; Felicia Williamson, sr., Union; Lauren Woods, jr., Heritage; Andrea Young, jr., Union.

Sure will. We can also discuss the Skyview junior’s exploits in the swimming pool — achievements that, unlike hand waves in Shelby’s direction, cannot be ignored.

When Kappler was a 5-year-old growing up in Vancouver, she used to brag to her father about her impeccable eyesight. These declarations were often made between book readings, one of Kappler’s favorite pastimes in her early childhood.

Of course, like any kid, she also loved television. But as she gradually inched closer to the set so that she could see her favorite programs, her parents suspected there was a problem.

They were right.

At the age of 8, Kappler was diagnosed with Stargardt, which essentially leaves its victims with nothing more than their peripheral vision. Devastated, the family embraced in a circle and wept.

From that point on, reading would not be a source of joy but rather strain. Color contrasts would keep majestic sights such as Mount Rainier from being seen whenever the Kapplers drove by.

And according to one doctor, if you thought Shelby had any chance of leading a normal life, you just weren't seeing things clearly.

“He wanted to pull her away from all of her friends and put her in a school for the blind,” said her father, Mark Kappler. “That wasn’t going to happen. This was already traumatic enough.”

Eye specialists agreed with Dad, and Kappler’s childhood was preserved as a result.

She stayed close with most of her friends and became a straight-A student who finished first in her class her freshman year at Skyview.

Is her reading pace half as fast as the average student? Yes. Would she sometimes endure barbs from peers such as “how do your books smell?” when she’d bury her head in the pages to see? Sure.

But has she let a single obstacle slow her drive down by even one millimeter an hour? No.

Call it blind ambition.

To read, Kappler uses magnifiers that enlarge the text. To walk, she wields an indicator cane that alerts drivers and pedestrians that she’s visually impaired.

Because she can only see peripherally, she appears to be gazing over people’s shoulders when talking to them. And when on vacation, the 16-year-old will take thousands of pictures, blow them up on her computer and go “wow, I didn’t know that was there.”

Future goals include traveling to Spain, Italy and Egypt, and while parental consent may come reluctantly — it pretty much always comes.

“Whatever she does, despite her disability, we encourage her to do what she wants,” said Kappler’s mother, Gail. “We want her to be an advocate for herself, because eventually, she’s going to have to be.”

But even the ever-encouraging Gail struggled to digest the news Shelby sprung upon her last summer — that she would be joining the Skyview swim team.

Mom hasn’t erred toward the side of caution with her daughter so much as she’s leaned at a 90-degree angle.

She will often follow an irritated Shelby on walks because, “I can see that weirdo by the corner, but Shelby can’t until the last second.”

And when Kappler trekked up to Seattle for six weeks last summer to learn how to live independently through the aid of a program for the visually-impaired, Gail was about as nervous as a biplane passenger flying through a monsoon.

Nonetheless, Shelby dove right into the deep end with swimming, and a few minutes into that first practice ...

“I was like ‘Wow. I’m going to drown’,” said Kappler, who had never before participated in organized sports. “I definitely thought about quitting.”

Turns out that mentality is what would end up sinking.

Kappler’s comfort level grew exponentially in the following days as she began looking forward to practice.

She became proficient in the butterfly and breaststroke events, and in a junior varsity meet last week, won her heats in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races.

Yes, flip turns can be a bit frustrating given Kappler’s lack of depth perception. And at meets, she depends on teammates to read her event times and guide her to her lane.

All that considered, as Skyview coach Ron Heidenreich said, “it’s pretty amazing what she’s doing.”

Kappler has always been open about her disease and maintains a good sense of humor.

She laughs when discussing the large-text “pocket thesaurus” she owns that is actually the size of the yellow pages, and gleefully recounts the time a Walmart photo center employee noticed her viewing a picture just an inch away from her face and asked “what are you, blind?”

Yeah, but she also has a vision.

Kappler’s plan for college is to attend the best school possible regardless of location, earn a degree in animal science, and then travel the globe.

The smart money is on her doing just that.

Most see Kappler as someone who flip-turns off of walls. The reality is, she’s plowing right through them.

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or