Diana and Kent Johannes spent nearly a month in the summer of 1995 shuttling between an orphanage in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and the office of the region’s adoption officials, who couldn’t understand why the couple wanted to adopt a cute little girl missing her left arm below the elbow.
The officials kept asking the same questions, and the Johanneses kept shaking their heads. Why do you want an “imperfect” child, the officials wanted to know. Are you going to sell her body parts for research?
It was impossible for the Johanneses to convince the adoption officials that they considered little Anna, then 2, a perfect, beautiful girl, but they were able at least to explain the Christian concept of caring for the poor and sick. Finally, little Anna was released.
“It was very touch-and-go,” Diana Johannes said. “I was in Bishkek at least three weeks. They really did not understand.”
Those officials, perhaps, would have a difficult time believing the rest of the story. As Diana Johannes sat in the rafters of the Cub Run RECenter just past 6 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, her daughter Anna, now 16 and a junior at Mount Vernon High, churned up the water below with the rest of the Potomac Marlins swim team. Anna had no trouble keeping up with her able-bodied teammates. In fact, in many ways, she was leaving them behind.
She will compete beginning Tuesday in Cartagena, Colombia, at the 2009 Youth Parapan American Games, an 18-and-under event that represents a major step in her quest to make the U.S. Paralympic team that will travel to London in 2012. She barely missed qualifying for the Beijing Paralympic Games just over a year ago at age 14.
“She knows where she wants this to take her,” said Steve Ercolano, her coach with the Potomac Marlins. “She knows going to London in 2012 is not a pipe dream for her. It’s a very realistic goal.
“She does this,” Ercolano said, gesturing at the bustling pool, “to get there. She could care less whether she made the PVS [Potomac Valley Swimming] Senior Championships, other than that is part of her Paralympic goals.”
But the thing is, she just might make the March 11-14 PVS Senior Championships. She frequently beats swimmers her age or older in club or high school meets, and would have competed in last weekend’s October Open at the Mount Vernon RECenter if not for her trip to Colombia. Last year, she qualified for the PVS Junior Championships, but had to skip the meet because a Paralympic selection event took place at the same time.
Ercolano called her as an “outstanding” disability swimmer and a “very good local level swimmer” who likely will be a candidate for Division III swimming programs when she graduates in 2011.
“I’ve always just loved being in the water,” Johannes said. “I never, ever think of myself as disabled ….. When I’m standing on the blocks, I think, ‘I can beat her, I can beat her, I can beat her. I’m good.’.”
New goals, new focus
At last year’s Paralympic trials in Minneapolis, when she finished first in the 100-meter breaststroke (1 minute 38.34 seconds) and 200 individual medley (2:54.98), she decided to steer her focus from high school and club competition toward the next Paralympic Games. Though Paralympic competition forces Johannes to confront and acknowledge her differences — “When you get there, it hits you in the face: They are disabled,” she said — it also surrounds her with peers who immediately understand her, and provides opportunities to travel and compete that she otherwise would not have.
After the trials, she thought, “Dude, I’m going to London,” Anna Johannes said. “I’m getting this ….. I can really push this far.”
Of course, she already has. She has trained with the Potomac Marlins since she was eight years old, learning all of the strokes and participating in all of the standard drills. Her form in the water looks flawless; it is difficult to tell from the deck of the pool that she is missing part of her left arm.
“Over the years, her body has learned how to make things work,” Ercolano said. “She has tremendous legs. She gets so much power from her legs.”
There’s something else, too, Ercolano noted: “She’s got tremendous heart.”
She needed that from the start. At the orphanage, Anna peeked out from her crib looking adorable and bright-eyed, but small and skinny — Diana Johannes thought she was 18 months old, not two years. The adoption process dragged on so long Anna got to know her future parents well; when the new family finally boarded the flight home, Anna wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck.
But the Johanneses couldn’t understand Anna’s words, and she could not understand them. When she cried, they agonized over how to respond. Was she hungry? Tired? Afraid?
Diana, who turned 40 a month after the adoption, recalled ducking into a family bathroom during a four-hour layover on the long trip home. Anna had been crying inconsolably. Diana dropped to the floor in a heap with her daughter.
“I sat down and cried with her,” Diana said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’.”
It took months for communication to improve, but one thing became clear almost immediately: Anna loved being in the pool. The weather in Fort Belvoir was hot and steamy when the Johannes arrived home with Anna in August of 1995. Kent, an assistant manager for a storage facility, and Diana, a secretary at the international law firm Arnold & Porter, immediately filled up a baby pool and put Anna in it. A year later they began taking her to a local municipal pool.
“She just plunged right in with her eyes wide open,” Diana Johannes said.
When their daughter turned 8, they signed her up for summer swimming in the Northern Virginia Swim League. She dog-paddled from end-to-end, then attended a stroke clinic hosted by Barry and Bill Marlin of the Potomac Marlins, who were immediately impressed with her natural ability. They urged her to join the club swimming team, but she broke her right arm before the start of the season when she fell on the playground.
“She was playing on the monkey bars,” Diana Johannes said. “She finally admits, ‘Okay, I can’t do monkey bars. There are some things I can’t do.’”
That list, by all accounts, is very small.
Anna can tie her shoes and put on her own goggles, but sometimes she will ask Ercolano to help with her swim cap. She scaled a rock-climbing wall during a summer trip but struggles to cut film in photography class. She tried a prosthetic arm in third grade but found it unwieldy and uncomfortable; she almost never uses one.
“People expect me not to be able to do things, and they want to help,” Anna said. But “I think definitely my personality is: ‘I don’t need help.’.”
Lots of give and take
She has trained with Ercolano for the past three years, and the two seem to be a perfect match. Ercolano heaps an often abrasive mix of praise, criticism and teasing upon all of his swimmers, and Johannes can give it right back. During a recent practice, Ercolano chastised one athlete by saying, “How can you be a teenage boy, and lose to a girl with only one arm?”
And when a fellow student asked Anna, “What happened?” in the school hallway last year, staring at her arm with a horrified expression, she didn’t miss a beat. “It got bitten off by a shark,” she said, and walked away.
It’s not the first time she has offered that explanation to an insensitive questioner. She prefers to attract attention with her performances in the pool.
She hopes that will be the case this week in Cartagena. She is ready to go fast; she will wear a full-body Speedo LZR Racer donated by the Arlington-based swim shop Sport Fair.
“I’m really excited,” Anna Johannes said. “It’s like a nudge closer” to the London Paralympics.