As Jamie Crowell bounces through the Dowd YMCA’s pool, she appears as skilled as the others in her water athletics class, blending in seamlessly with all the action. Her comfort masks the fact that she was born blind, a disability that, in other areas of her life, often makes her stand out.
She can’t drive herself to class, she can’t easily locate the pool without her guide dog Norton, and she can’t read the words on her butterfly T-shirt, ‘I’m making miracles happen!’
But Crowell has never let what she can’t do stop her from achieving what she can.
To Crowell, 36, these daily “miracles” – her drive to be self-sufficient, volunteering with Veterans Affairs and going to the gym – are just everyday facets of life. But to those around her, she’s an emblem of encouragement and determination.
She especially embodies these traits every Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Y.
During the day, Crowell works on the production floor of Lions Services Inc., an agency that employs the blind and visually impaired. She’s also hoping to soon become a Veterans Service Officer at the VA, where she volunteers several times a month.
But one of her favorite activities is the water class, which her doctor recommended after she experienced back problems in 2009.
“I was afraid of the water, and I had no confidence whatsoever,” she said. But over time, she built up the courage to incorporate water aerobics into her weekly schedule.
Dowd’s Aquatic Director Mary Anne Peers said she remembers when Crowell first approached the gym about being involved in classes. They had a few members with wheelchair-bound disabilities, but she said they had never accommodated a blind person in a water class. “I think she amazes a lot of people,” Peers said.
Diane Arnold, Crowell’s water athletics instructor, was apprehensive about the idea at first. With the encouragement of other Dowd staff, they began working to make Crowell’s experience as beneficial as anyone else’s.
Her new workout regimen also required some sacrifice from Norton the yellow Lab, who spends every moment of his life with Crowell, from riding the bus to guiding her around the apartment. He was uneasy at first, seeing Crowell in the water where he was unable to reach her.
“The dog got sick and jumped on people,” Peers said. “He was upset because Jamie was in the pool. There was a lot of training on the dog’s part.” Now, Norton sits obediently by the pool’s edge.
The logistics are still a challenge. For instance, the CATS Special Transportation Service bus schedule gets her to the Dowd a few hours early some days.
Arnold, the instructor, arrives about 30 minutes before class, and the two stand by the pool, mirroring one another as Arnold places weights in Crowell’s hands. She guides Crowell’s arms through rotations and spirals so she will recognize the movements when Arnold is calling them out in class.
“Jamie is my first regular, the first one I’ve tailored to,” Arnold said. “She’s a great addition – she’s an encouragement to others.”
Crowell said she is thankful for the support she receives not only from Arnold, but also from the staff at the Johnston YMCA,where she takes spinning classes and lifts weights. One of her instructors has helped her start a YouTube channel, where she shares some of her workouts to encourage others with disabilities.
In addition to work, volunteering and the gym, Crowell has spent many of her summers at Camp Dogwood for the blind and visually impaired. It’s where she discovered her latest passion: tandem biking.
“I’m just trying to reach out to other people with disabilities and let them know that things can be done,” she said. “Not just blind people, but people with autism and other physical or mental disabilities.
“I do things just as a sighted person would,” she said. “I don’t do anything special, I just have to do it in a different way.”
Cole: 704-358-5357; @kianamcole