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La Center swimmer Sonja Austad doesn’t let cerebral palsy slow her down in the pool

Sophomore says her favorite event is 500-yard freestyle

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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La Center sophomore Sonja Austad backstrokes through the water Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, during swim practice at Gold's Gym Camas. Austad — diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months old — thrives on La Center's two-person swim team.
La Center sophomore Sonja Austad backstrokes through the water Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, during swim practice at Gold's Gym Camas. Austad — diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months old — thrives on La Center's two-person swim team. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A swimming pool is a place of solace for Sonja Austad.

Swimming for La Center High School brings confidence and joy for the sophomore diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months old. Her form of cerebral palsy — Spastic hemiplegia — affects the right side of her body.

For years, the water has been Austad’s element. In the pool, she focuses on the task ahead and not a past filled with people of all ages questioning the teen about her disability or the noticeable stares and comments because of physical differences.

That’s when the silence of swimming can be welcoming, because after all, in the water, Austad is at her best.

“It makes me so beyond happy,” Austad said. “Swimming keeps me happy and it keeps me healthy. I would be a very different person if I didn’t swim.”

Physically and emotionally, she said.

Austad’s form of cerebral palsy primarily affects her right leg. It took five years for her to learn how to jump rope and she finally hit her goal of learning to skip two days before her 13th birthday.

“A lot of those things took a long time to develop,” Austad said.

Surgery at age 10 helped lengthen the back of her right leg, but she still has what she calls a “hitch to her giddy up” when walking.

Sports requiring various movements proved challenging. She inherited good height — she now stands 5 feet, 10 inches — but basketball, volleyball, and even playing soccer for a year were difficult.

She added: “I could never be a gymnast.”

Swimming, however, wasn’t difficult. The low-impact activity kept her muscles active and strong. Austad was hooked.

She started swimming competitively at age 7, then soon became a club swimmer. She joined La Center’s high school swim team last season as a freshman and eventually, swam two district-qualifying times.

This year’s La Center girls swim team features two athletes: Austad and Mekenzie Schockelt. The two Wildcats are part of a joint co-operative with swimmers from five schools: La Center, Hockinson, Ridgefield, Washougal and Seton Catholic. The swimmers practice together at Gold’s Gym Camas, but compete separately for their respective schools at swim meets.

Head coach Michelle Jacobs-Brown said Austad’s growth in the pool from freshman to sophomore year is most noticeable in her confidence. The coach sometimes modifies Austad’s swim practice workouts because of her cerebral palsy complications, and also knows the teen has to work harder than her peers.

“She’s just really good about recognizing her limits these days,” Jacobs-Brown said, “and I think that’s a huge, huge thing. I don’t think she did that in the beginning, but now she does.”

Last week, Austad swam her first district-qualifying time of the season in the 200-yard freestyle. She enjoys swimming’s four strokes — freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke — but admits it can be difficult for her legs to perform legal strokes in the butterfly and breaststroke. She continues to work on those two strokes, said Jacobs-Brown.

Austad said her favorite event is the 500 free, high school swimming’s longest race.

“It’s the least among the movements,” Austad said. “It’s really hard for me to be good in sprint races because I have such a lag going off the blocks and going off my turns, so the 500 free gives me enough time to catch up from my dive.”

Austad has done physical therapy for most of her life and continues to do so twice a month. Andrea Austad, Sonja’s mom, gets emotional when talking about her oldest child’s strength and perseverance that goes beyond the pool.

“It’s difficult to teach a kid to not pay attention to what’s on the outside,” Andrea Austad said. “And it was hard — with a lot of tears.

“But we’re finally at that place where she is competing against her own times. And in terms of who she is as a human, she is a beautiful person. She’s compassionate and she’s mature beyond her years.”

Sonja Austad understands kids’ curiosity and behavior toward her disability, but doesn’t give adults the same pass.

“Some of the worst things that make me feel the worst about myself is when I see adults staring or adults who don’t word their questions correctly,” she said. “How is this showing how you should treat somebody that’s different? … If you have a question, just ask me.”

That’s why Austad is firm on educating whomever is open to learning more about cerebral palsy. At the same time, that’s also why a pool is a place of solace for the teenager, because the water is where she’s at her best.

It took time to get there, too.

“There’s going to be so many people in your life that are going to tell you you can’t do things,” she said. “If there’s something you’re really passionate about, you’ve got to go do it, no matter what the circumstances are.

“You’ve just got to put your head down and go do it.”

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