ISELIN, N.J. — Cyrus Kia glides through the last lane in a chlorine-scented swimming pool not far from Montgomery High School, where he is a junior, around 3 p.m. on a school day.

“Fast, fast, fast, fast!” shouts his swim coach, Fran Teetsel, from the sidelines. “C’mon, Cyrus, straight up!” she continues, walking along the pool’s edge in the warm, airy space.

The lanky 17-year-old climbs out of the pool so Teetsel can correct his arm movement on dry land. He has autism and is also mostly nonverbal, due to his significant apraxia, but has made progress articulating a few very common, single-syllable words, after years of speech therapy, his father said.

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Apraxia, which is a disorder of the brain and nervous system, is the inability to make skilled movements, even if the person has the ability and desire to make them. But, Kia’s diagnoses don’t keep Teetsel from firmly correcting the swimmer.

“Is this straight?” she asks, clad in a lime-green outfit head to toe, mimicking his earlier movements. “No,” he responds, shaking his head a little.

“Is this straight?” she asks again, now fully lengthening her own arms toward the ceiling in a vertical line. “Yeah,” he says, nodding. He dives back in the water and starts a new lap.

This spring, Kia is set to swim in three events for a chance to compete in the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris in late August. He will first travel to Indianapolis, Ind., for the Citi Para Swimming World Series USA on April 11-13.

Afterward, he plans to compete in the Bill Keating Cincinnati Para Swimming Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, in May. From there, he will head to Minneapolis, Minn., for the 2024 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in June.

Not every swimmer is invited to the trials in Minneapolis. Swimmers must complete minimum qualification standards to participate, said Raman Kia, his father.

Kia received an official invite to compete in the upcoming trials.

The path to making the U.S. Paralympic Team can be complicated, said Raman Kia. It’s common for there to be multiple routes to earning a spot on the team, but it’s also possible swimmers can make it through just the trials. The selection committee can also make discretionary decisions.

The competitions are a long way from where the Somerset County teen first started, as a scared 5-year-old put into swim lessons with his twin, Cameron, who is also diagnosed with autism. Their parents enrolled them in swim lessons to prevent an accidental drowning.

Drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children with autism, because many people with autism have an affinity for water, according to a study from Columbia University. Children with autism are 160 times as likely to die from drowning compared to their neurotypical peers.

“This went from feeling like pure terror that my child might drown, because he was so drawn to the water, to actually, I think it’s a German word,” said Jessica Kia, his mother, noting she feels freudenfreude — the opposite of schadenfreude — which is joy in another person’s joy.

“As his mother, this is all a win for me,” she continued. “After he was safe from drowning, this is just pure, unbridled, unmitigated, unexpected joy in my child’s joy in finding something that he loves.”

Raman Kia was more succinct when describing his son’s inclusion in a community and sport that he loves. It’s “amazing,” he said.

Kia didn’t always seem like a natural swimmer.

Both Kia and his twin were placed in swim lessons after a recommendation from their pediatric neurologist. Maximus Kia, the twins’ 14-year-old sibling, also took swim lessons as a young child with Teetsel.

Kia loved the water and was naturally drawn to it — “never met a body of water this kid didn’t love,” as his father put it — but his very first swim lesson with Teetsel was less than promising.

“It was a brutal experience,” said Raman Kia, a managing director at a consulting firm. “He clamped on, clawed to, Fran’s neck. Like quite literally, I think he dug scars into her neck.”

That did not deter Teetsel.

The experience was difficult for Kia’s mother, who left the room, Raman Kia recalled. “But Fran was as cool and calm as a cucumber,” he said. “It was as if she was not bothered by it at all.”

So, the Kia family, who live in the Belle Mead section of Montgomery Township, kept bringing their kids back for lessons, which gradually lengthened for Kia.

But, he didn’t get serious about swimming until the family was in Los Angeles in 2021, and met a swim instructor who works with children with autism and saw potential in him.

In the fall, when Kia was 15 years old, he completed two days of tryouts at Montgomery High School, making the school’s varsity swim team. From there, his father tried to also get him into a local USA Swimming club, but he said many coaches saw his son’s autism diagnosis as a barrier.

Kia’s tryout times were fast enough to make the different clubs, but he saw his invitation disappear once coaches learned about his autism. It was “heartbreaking,” said Raman Kia.

Kia eventually landed at Scarlet Aquatics, a swim club associated with Rutgers University.

Now, Kia typically trains with Coach Tom Speedling at the swim club in Piscataway seven days a week, for nearly 16 hours per week. He also works with Teetsel four days a week, for an hour or two, at Princeton Fitness and Wellness in Montgomery.

In between, Kia also works out on dry land once a week at a nearby gym.

During practices, Teetsel uses hand signals, along with verbal instructions, to communicate with Kia. She often pulls up YouTube videos to demonstrate different techniques because Kia is a visual learner, she said. She also uses tools like pool noodles and water bottles.

At a recent practice, Teetsel gave a plastic water bottle to Kia, who laid on his back. He placed the bottle on his forehead, and began swimming backstroke. The goal — to keep the bottle from falling into the pool — is designed to encourage Kia to rotate his body as he swims and not move his head.

“Not easy to do,” Teetsel said, with a laugh. “Katie Ledecky does this with a glass of milk,” she said, referring to the American swimmer who won seven Olympic gold medals.

Kia and his coach have worked together for so long that she is considered part of their family, and the feeling is mutual. “It’s just a pleasure to be here and to be along on this journey with him,” Teetsel said. “I want to see him hit the top.”

Kia’s love for swimming is also clearly evident, she said.

“He’s always smiling,” she said, adding he’s “the one person who can smile as he’s swimming and not choke on water.”

But, not everyone has the same support and encouragement Kia has, noted his parents, who are also co-founders of a towel company.

It shouldn’t be an “extraordinary” ask for parents to want their neurodivergent children to be safe in the water, said Jessica Kia, who previously oversaw the marketing strategy for Ralph Lauren for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Kia is an example for other young swimmers with autism who aspire to achieve what he has accomplished, she said.

“We want little kids like Cyrus to look at people like Cyrus, and say, I can do that, and they’re making room for people like me,” Jessica Kia said. “It is okay that he’s wearing headphones because he’s got sound sensitivity like me. It’s okay for him to flap outside of the pool, because when he goes in the pool, he is a rocket, and I can be like that.”

“We need the Michael Phelps of autism,” she continued, “so that people can see themselves.”

© 2024 Advance Local Media LLC
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