The swim coach in a photograph with Tonia Valletta in the Feb. 25 Prince William Weekly was incorrectly identified. He is Marty Olson. Also, in the accompanying story, the pool at the Dale City Recreation Center is not Olympic size. (Published 3/3/88)
Tonia Valletta breast strokes effortlessly back and forth in an Olympic-size pool.
As the 13-year-old nears the end of the lap, a coach taps her on the head with a giant Q-tip-like device, warning her that she must make her turn soon. She does so with precise timing and glides toward the opposite end of the pool where another coach awaits her.
Valletta, a Manassas native who now lives in Nokesville, is blind, having lost her sight to a rare form of cancer called retinoblastoma when she was 2 years old.
She has become one of America's best hopes of winning a gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, an international event for the disabled to be held immediately after the Olympic Games this summer.
"I just want to represent my country," Valletta said, as she took a breather at the Dale City Recreation Center pool. "I have a winning streak. I want to continue to do the best I can."
The winning streak is impressive, so much so that her athletic achievements are listed on four pages, single-spaced. And that does not include Valletta's academic achievements at Stonewall Middle School where she is an honors student and a top flutist. "I'm losing track of the numerous awards she's gotten," Valletta's mother Barbara said.
Valletta's first major accomplishments came in gymnastics, which she began practicing at the age of 7. By the time she was lured to swimming last year, she had become the undisputed national champion of blind gymnastics, having been named the best all-around gymnast twice in the last three years.
In 1985, Valletta's first year of national gymnastic competition, she garnered four gold medals and a silver medal en route to winning the all-around title. Last year, she topped her own record by winning five gold medals leading to another all-around award.
In 1986, the only year Valletta did not win the all-around title, she won three gold medals -- in the vault, balance beam and floor exercise -- despite a broken arm.
"As a coach, you wish you could have a kid like her," said Bill Shaw, assistant coach for the swim club.
Her gymnastics accomplishments were not confined to events for the blind. In Valletta's proudest moment, she advanced to the sectional of the United States Gymnastics Federation competition last year, two steps away from competing in the regular Olympics, where the likes of Olga Korbut and Mary Lou Retton made their marks. Valletta was the first blind gymnast to come so close in 29 years.
"I can do almost anything sighted people can do," Valletta said. "I'm almost as good as they are."
Sandy White, the head swimming coach for the United States team in the Paralympics, agreed when he saw Valletta at gymnastic meets. He figured the world should know of Valletta's talents via swimming, a sport in which the Paralympics provided an international forum for blind athletes.
Although Valletta began swimming 1 1/2 years ago, it was not until two months ago that she began practicing for competition. According to her coaches, she already has broken several national blind records in practice.
In a swim meet last month in Quantico, she swam the 100-meter breast stroke in 2:05, breaking the national record for the blind by a second.
Valletta, who is ranked third in the country, is expected to qualify in six events at the United States Association of Blind Athletes' national meet in June, a preparatory event for the Paralympics. At the moment, she would be the youngest American member on the U.S. team.
"She's very strong and I think she gets that from the gymnastics training she has had," said MaryAnne Willmore, Valletta's coach since she began swimming. "Her upper body strength is remarkable."
In addition to her strength, Valletta has a keen sense of timing, an important trait for a blind swimmer. "She has a sense like radar," said Marty Olson, head coach of the Prince William Swim Club. "You can almost set your clock by her."
How does Valletta keep track of her pace? "I pick a song with the beat at which speed I want to go at," she said.
While attending school, Valletta will practice every other day for two to three hours in the evenings. In the summer, she will practice every day, her coaches said.
"It feels good to try hard," Valletta said. "It kind of makes you feel exhilarated."