PORTLAND – Having scaled the starting block at the Bowdoin College pool, Stephanie Libby had already conquered one obstacle. But when she dove into the water, something else was amiss. Her goggles.

“My goggles weren’t on as tight as I thought they were,” Libby said. “So they filled up.”

While Libby’s eyes were closed, her ears were working fine. She heard thunderous cheers from the packed grandstand. Then there was the sound she tuned into — a pack of kids on the deck, screaming her name.

“The whole team was at the end of the lane cheering,” Libby remembered. “That was really special.”

To know Stephanie Libby is to cheer for her.

This is not a story of a state champion. There have been plenty of those the past month, as winter sports crowned their victors. We’ve watched athletes hug gold balls, raise oversized plaques and accept gold medals. But those awards do not represent the only definition of success in high school sports.

Libby, 17, is a senior at Deering High. When she walks the school hallways, her pace is deliberate, a slight limp on the left side.

Growing up, through her freshman year, Libby never considered herself an athlete. She might shoot a basketball at the hoop in her neighborhood, but she would never try out for a team.

“I can shoot, but moving I can’t get around people,” Libby said.

Libby has cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects movement and motor skills. There is no cure. Libby said her case is mild, but it is still limiting.

Libby is smart, funny, and loves to pick up a guitar and strum a Taylor Swift tune. But organized sports? That was not reality.

“When I was younger, everyone could do all this stuff, but I knew I could never really do that,” Libby said of sports.

But Al Carp did not look at Libby as someone with restrictions. A math teacher at Deering, he also was the school swim coach. He talked Libby into giving the pool a try.

At home, where Libby lives with her twin sister Stacey, and parents Peter and Diane, she found only encouragement.

“I wanted her to become more involved with the school. Joining the sport would be a good way to do that,” Diane Libby said.

“She would get cut (in other sports). But in swimming, they let everyone swim.”

Indeed, Deering’s practices were geared like other swim programs, with one lane dedicated for beginners so they would not be overwhelmed.

And Libby was not fast. She knew that. But Libby also realized if she let her limitations define her, she would already be defeated. Her speed, or lack thereof, did not indicate the effort put forth.

“I feel like I have to try so much harder and everyone else is still better than me,” she said. “But then that’s good, too, because I can’t give up. I can’t stop trying.

“If I try as hard as a I can, I’m still a little behind. But if I don’t try, then I’m really far behind. It just pushes me harder.”

In Libby’s junior year, Angie Chessey replaced Carp as the new head coach. Like Carp, Chessey was a Deering graduate committed not only to the idea of individual achievement, but the powerful notion of being part of a team.

Libby’s dedication soon became apparent to her new coach.

“She’s the hardest worker,” Chessey said. “She will swim until the lights go out.”

At the end of her junior season, Libby attended the state meet. She cheered on the swimmers. And when they stepped on the podium to receive their medals, she dreamed.

“I knew I probably couldn’t ever qualify,” Libby said of the state meet. “Then I was thinking at the end, after they did all the awards, ‘why couldn’t I qualify?’

“I worked all summer.”

Before her senior season, Libby committed to getting in better shape. She ran, biked, worked out at a gym, and did yoga. She also swam at her family’s camp at Sabbathday Lake.

For her senior season, Libby was chosen co-captain, along with Laura DeWitt.

But dedication and hard work would get Libby only so far. She could not come close to qualifying for an individual race at the state meet.

A week before the state meet, Chessey met with her captains to talk about who would make up the relay teams.

“I didn’t think I was going to be one of the people,” Libby said. “But then she was talking, and saying ‘Stephanie and ‘ “

Chessey read out other names but Libby froze at the mention of hers. Was her coach putting her in a preliminary relay?

No. Libby was to lead-off the 200-yard freestyle relay in the finals.

“I was really proud of that,” Libby said.

Other swim coaches have made similar decisions, placing seniors in relay finals as a reward for years of hard work. Chessey, who also subbed in other swimmers for the final, said Libby deserved it.

“She had worked so hard and supported her teammates,” Chessey said. “She didn’t have the speed, but that is not the only part of who should be in a relay.”

A concern came up immediately because the starting blocks at Bowdoin are higher than others Libby has used. Libby cannot step up very high and spoke to Chessey about it.

“She told me I was going to get up on the blocks if she has to put me up there herself,” Libby said.

At the state meet preliminaries, the Deering 200 freestyle relay qualified seventh for the finals that night. The Rams were not favored to be close to the contenders.

Libby led her team on the deck for the final. She was able to mount the starting block by pulling up with her arms.

She dove in and, despite her loose goggles, swam hard. But, perhaps too excited, Libby went into her flip turn early, barely touching the wall.

By the time, she finished her leg of the relay, Deering was 20 seconds behind.

“I felt bad about the turn, but everyone said not to worry about it,” she said.

Because a team was disqualified, Deering finished seventh out of eight teams in the race. When it was over, Libby realized what was next. She saw the podium which, just last year, she had dreamed about. She stepped up to receive her medal.

“I never thought I would get there,” Libby said, her eyes starting to water. “It was unbelievable.

“I feel really fortunate that Miss Chessey put me in that position to have that experience.”

Chessey never hesitated in her decision.

“People might argue that she did not swim fast enough,” Chessey said. “But we weren’t vying for top place. It’s not about points. It’s about hard work, making sacrifices and the sportsmanship you put forward. It takes a team.”

In this past month of title winners and victory celebration, it’s important to remember that not all the champions finished first.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

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