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Handicapped Swimmer Is a Champ in the Pool and as Charity Worker

June 30, 1988|DONNA DOWLING

No judge would award her points for technique or speed. But if there were categories for effort and endurance, handicapped swimmer Abbie Spellman could score perfect 10s.

Afflicted since her high school days with a hereditary, degenerative nerve disorder called Friedreich's ataxia, the 50-year-old Spellman can't walk.

Last year, though, the former Camarillo teacher discovered that she could swim, albeit slowly and awkwardly. Ever since that discovery, Spellman has been logging laps for charity. On Friday, after a year of swimming, she will finally reach the 100-mile mark--a 4,400-lap milestone that will add $5,000 to the coffers of Project F.O.O.D., a local food-sharing effort.

"She's an amazing person," said Burton Danet, an Oxnard psychologist who befriended Spellman while the two swam at the Easter Seal Society's therapeutic swimming pool in Saticoy. "There's some kind of charm about her. She makes you have second thoughts about who you are. It's almost like some kind of magic."

Friday is "Abbie Spellman Day," so proclaimed by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. There will be speeches in her honor, award ceremonies and poolside visits from Supervisor Susan Lacey and state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara).

But she feels more at home in the water than in the limelight.

"I didn't know how fabulous it felt to exercise your whole body," Spellman said one afternoon while floating around in the pool after her routine 90-minute workout. "I love the water and, when you swim, every part of you is involved."

Confined to a wheelchair three years ago, Spellman wishes that her legs would be more a part of her swimming instead of merely appendages floating along for the ride behind her. Still, her style is graceful. She propels herself with her tanned, well-defined arms.

Across the 60-foot-long pool, Spellman backstrokes. A little past the midpoint, she takes a breath, flips over and, with her face down, does her version of the crawl--with her cupped hands kept beneath her. After reaching the end, she does a U-turn and, still with that original breath of air, swims her crawl 15 more feet before flipping again to backstroke to the other side. She follows this pattern lap after lap--usually 60 a day.

At each turn, her face is submerged for more than 45 seconds, proving that last summer's breath-control lessons have been put to good use.

Such lessons weren't the only ones Spellman needed to take when she undertook her project. Initially, she had no idea how to swim. She was even afraid to submerge her head.

"At first, I was all over," she said. "I ran into everybody."

Now, she's as directed as she is vigorous.

"If I had 1/10th of your motivation, I'd go to heaven," Stan, a fellow handicapped swimmer at the Easter Seal pool, said after he kissed and flirted with Spellman. "I've been coming here since 1976. You put out more energy than anyone."

With the compliment, Spellman blushed as she hugged the pool railing in the shallow end.

Spellman has done volunteer work for hunger organizations since 1977. At a Chicago meeting a year ago, she met her inspiration, Gordon Starr, a heavy smoker who ran in marathons to raise money and awareness for an organization called the Hunger Project.

"I thought if he could run, I could swim," she said as she splashed in the water. "But when I started, I had no idea it was this big. If I had known, I don't know if I would have done it."

But now that she's done it, Spellman is encouraging others to follow--specifically, the handicapped youngsters at the Penfield School in Saticoy. The students, who invited her along on a field trip to the Easter Seal pool, were responsible for coaxing a skittish Spellman into the water after she delivered a talk on global hunger at their school.

"Children are good teachers," she said. "They know so much and are so wise. They teach you to love life. They're passionate and poised. It's my vision for them to see that they can make a difference. I want to give it to the kids. I want them to be as motivated and as committed as I am."

For 20 years, Spellman taught in Camarillo grade schools. Although she and her husband, Peter, have no children of their own, she keeps in touch with a few special children who might as well be her own, she says.

She writes letters to them on her computer, a fabulous tool for her since she can't write with a steady hand. To these youngsters, she calls herself "Deb the Dolphin."

"My dream is to master the crawl," she said. "I can't do it. I can do it until I need a breath. But I want to look cute and normal when I swim. Easy--that's how I want to do it."

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