Melissa, a 28-year-old swimmer from the Matanuska Valley in Alaska, has spent much of 2011 training toward her goal of getting “all golds” at her first World Games. A swimmer from Alaska may seem a bit unusual, but Melissa makes a habit of defying expectations. Born prematurely at only 26 weeks, Melissa and her twin sister, Mel, were a pound each at birth. Melissa stayed at the hospital for her first nine months as doctors worked around the clock to allow air to circulate into her underdeveloped lungs. An accident at the hospital also left her permanently deaf, so today, Melissa signs with her family and friends. Melissa’s airway still remains proportionally very small--her capacity to breathe is equivalent to that of a six-year-old.
Along with Melissa’s unstoppable determination, she is always looking out for others, including her sister, a Special Olympics athlete who has undergone more than a dozen heart and brain surgeries. She is the first to provide encouragement and support to her teammates, coaches and family, and her World Games experience has allowed her to make even more friends on Team USA.
Melissa leads an independent life. She lives alone and is employed by the Home Depot in Wasilla and also works part-time at an organization that organizes recreational activities for people with disabilities. She has her driver’s license and handles the many months of Alaska winter with ease. She drives her sister to Special Olympics practices and together they are active in Alaska schools promoting the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.
After graduating from high school, Melissa spent an additional year studying at the Alaska State School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. After the Games, Melissa is ready to continue her education at a college for the hearing impaired across the continent in Washington, D.C. Getting accepted into the competitive program, moving thousands of miles away, and finding a way to pay for her education will be no easy task. But if we know anything about Melissa, there’s no stopping her.