St. Michael Catholic swimmer Sarah Kate Sligh chases Paralympic dream

2021 Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Spotlight

By Josh Bean

Fairhope, AL – The elementary-school flier advertised a local swim team in Fairhope, and Sarah Kate Sligh – then a 7-year-old – asked her mom if she could join.

“I thought it was crazy, and my husband thought it was crazy,” said Andi Sligh, Sarah Kate’s mother.  Watching their daughter swim in her first meet didn’t erase any of her parents’ fears.  “It kind of looks like I’m drowning if you watch the video,” said Sarah Kate, one of 52 seniors selected as a Bryant-Jordan Foundation Regional Student Achievement winner in 2021. The group, along with 52 Bryant-Jordan Regional Scholar Athlete winners, will be recognized April 12 at the 36th annual Bryant-Jordan Awards Banquet to be held at the Birmingham Sheraton with the event televised live over the AHSAA TV Network by WOTM TV and live-streamed over the NFHS Network. She was chosen the Class 4A, Region 1 recipient.

She was born 10 weeks prematurely and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which affects a person’s mobility, balance and posture. About one in every 345 children in the U.S. suffers from cerebral palsy, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Sarah Kate’s case, cerebral palsy affects her legs and right arm. She didn’t walk until she was 3, much later than most children. Even today, she uses leg braces to walk around school and only uses her wheelchair if she needs to travel a long distance or move quickly. “I move pretty slowly,” she said.

While Sarah Kate might have appeared to be barely keeping her head above water in her first swim meet, she knew she’d found her competitive outlet.

“I immediately loved it, because on land when I walked around, I had to deal with gravity and supporting my weight,” she said. “In the water, that’s not the case. I don’t have to carry my weight. It takes the pressure off my legs, so I thought it was the best thing ever.”

Fast forward to today and swimming has transformed Sarah Kate’s life.

She swam at Fairhope High while still in middle school and has been part of the swimming team at St. Michael Catholic throughout high school. She discovered adaptive swimming two years ago. She dreams of swimming for Team USA in the Paralympics after winning multiple AHSAA state swimming titles as the first para-swimmer in state meet history.

At St. Michael, Sarah Kate ranks among the top students in her class scoring 33 on the ACT. She plans to attend Auburn University in the fall. She even has her own YouTube channel.

Her success and perseverance against the odds are major reasons she’s a regional winner in the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Program’s Achievement category, which honors senior athletes who have overcome personal adversity to excel. All regional winners win a $3,000 scholarship, and she could win more when classification and statewide winners are announced at the statewide banquet April 12. More than $1 million in scholarships will be available to the student-athletes through the Bryant-Jordan program and its many benefactors.

“Her spirit is just unbelievable,” St. Michael Athletic Director Paul Knapstein said. “She doesn’t want to be thought of as a para-athlete. She wants to be treated as an athlete, and she is. Her tenacity, her spirit, her drive to be successful is unbelievable. She can’t be limited.” 

‘Racing yourself’

While Sarah Kate immediately fell in love with swimming, it wasn’t easy. For starters, she competed against able-bodied swimmers, and when she swims, she doesn’t use her legs. All of her swimming is done with the arms, so she lacks the leg kick most swimmers rely upon for power.

“You can think of her brain like an out-of-date computer. When she starts kicking, the right arm doesn’t work,” her mom explained. “She has a relatively smooth stroke with both arms without kicking. She actually does better if she does not use her legs. She basically has to drag them.”

Sarah Kate said she finished dead-last in every race in elementary and middle school.

“You’d have awards for all the high-point winners and people who won all these races or got this many points for the team,” she said. “Those parts were hard, but for the most part swimming is just racing yourself and racing your times, so I sort of fixated on that. I was more, ‘I want to break these times,’ and not, ‘I have to beat these people in the pool.’ That’s what made me feel like I was winning.”

Perhaps more frustrating was the dismissive attitude from some naysayers – some officials, swimmers, even security guards who didn’t think a girl in a wheelchair could possibly be a competitive swimmer. That, however, gave her even more drive and determination.

“She’s very bright, articulate and determined,” said Rich Suhs, her longtime coach at Eastern Shore Aquatic Center. “She doesn’t let anything limit her. She has progressed and gotten faster and better over the years.”

Finding ‘My Tribe’

During her sophomore year at St. Michael, Sarah Kate heard about an adaptive swim meet in Georgia and again asked her parents about participating and was authorized to take part in the pre-meet clinic.

Everything changed.

She suddenly found herself surrounded by other swimmers with physical challenges. Some were blind. Some had mobility issues similar to hers. All of them, though, were competitors.

As Sarah Kate puts it, she’d found “her tribe”.

Sarah Kate Sligh displays her AHSAA State Swim Meet Medals.

“The first day of that meet in Georgia, they had all the swimmers waiting to go in the pool and (we were all) talking,” Sarah Kate said. “I just looked around at all the people there and it’s a strange feeling to describe, but it was all like we knew each other even though we had never met before. It was an energy I really liked, and I wanted to see more of it.

“So, I wanted to go to more meets like that because there were these people who were my tribe, people who understood me.”

Exposed to the world of adaptive athletics and inspired by other Paralympians who became friends, Sarah Kate became an advocate for adaptive sports.

The Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) encourages adaptive athletes to compete in the AHSAA State Swimming Championships – much like the adaptive events at the AHSAA state track meets – and Sarah Kate became the first such Alabama high school swimmer to compete. She won individual AHSAA state swimming titles in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

More Obstacle

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s life, and Sarah Kate wasn’t immune.

Starting in spring 2020, she went at least two months without swimming at all. When she could swim, her local pool had limited capacity and time limits. Her times suffered, and the pandemic essentially cancelled the 2020 adaptive swimming season.

In the fall of 2020 – just as it appeared things might start getting back to normal – Hurricane Sally roared ashore and destroyed her home pool, the Eastern Shore Aquatic Center in Daphne.

With other nearby training facilities still restricting capacity and time limits, Sarah Kate joined a club team in Pensacola, which meant a 65-minute commute each way to and from practice. For a swimmer accustomed to training six days a week, she was suddenly swimming three days a week and for a shorter period of time.

Better than nothing, right?

“It was definitely hard because swimming is also the best way I can stay in shape,” Sarah Kate said. “It’s the easiest way for me to do that. When I didn’t have it, my disability got so much worse. My muscles were tighter and then I didn’t have anything to do after school. I got a little restless because I didn’t know what to do with myself. Because of the endorphins when I swim, I’m a lot happier after I swim. I think my mom would say I am not as happy when I’m not swimming.”

Andi Sligh wasted no time agreeing. “She’s not as pleasant,” she said with a laugh.

The Future

Despite COVID-19 and Hurricane Sally and years of others doubting whether she even belonged in competitive swimming, high school graduation won’t be the end of Sarah Kate’s swimming career.

At Auburn she plans to continue training while chasing national and international qualifying times to make her Paralympic dream become reality. “Run with it as best I can,” she said.

Robin Heller, her coach at SEASTARS Aquatics in Pensacola, noted Sarah Kate has already set national para-swimming records in her age group and added the Paralympics is an obtainable goal.

“She really is an amazing athlete and an amazing person,” Heller said. “She’s all smiles, she works her butt off, and she never complains.”

Andi Sligh has seen what swimming has done for her daughter and knows the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship is another reminder of how much her daughter has grown. 

“All of these years of screaming on the side of the pool and hoping she’d beat her time we suddenly realized about three years ago that she could go somewhere with this,” Andi Sligh said. “A lot of the kids she’s been around and swimming against won’t swim after high school except recreationally. She has the potential to do something really big. I don’t know if she’ll make Team USA. I’d be incredibly proud if she did, but the experience she has had right now has given her so much.

“I’d love for her to go as far as she can with it, but she’s already gone farther than I ever imagined.”