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The Road to Recovery

Terrence Keller

With the leanness of a runner, Terrence Keller, a tall and fit 58 year old, would tell you, “life is full of opportunities and I am blessed.” You might not have thought that if you had met him in 2013. Terrence, a man who has dedicated his life to giving to others through fatherhood, teaching, and coaching, woke up one day in the hospital to find himself needing to accept care from others. At age 54, shortly after losing his wife to cancer, Terrence was in a solo vehicle accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury and legally blind. Today, he has not only defied the odds by living and functioning on his own, but through competitive swimming and finding new love.

After teaching for over 30 years and coaching countless others in Tae Kwon Do including both of his boys, now adults, he found himself facing extended hospitalization and would ultimately spend a three-year period in two recovery facilities. During this time, he and his team focused on regaining memory, balance, and coordination.

It was a productive but lonely time as he was living away from his two beloved sons, Brendan and Alexander. It also provided a significant amount of time to self-reflect and process messaging from his team. One day, one of his neurologists turned to him and said, “I wouldn’t plan on going back to what you were doing.” What Terrence decided was although it would take a village to help him walk down the recovery road, he was the only person who was going to make sure he actually did it.

A partial source of inspiration was the book that one of his sons gave him by the famous martial artist Chuck Norris, The Secret of Inner Strength. Terrence found Norris’ message compelling and saw parallels to his own situation both in how Norris teaches martial arts and in his beginnings. As Terrence puts it, “He built himself from nothing,” and here was Terrence facing the daily chore of re-mastering activities he had learned as a toddler. This book gave Terrence his credo – somehow and somewhere within you is your inner strength.  He knew he had to tap into it.

Formerly trained to fifth-degree black belt, one morning he got up early and started to think of martial arts patterns he knew. He says, “You can’t do them unless you really concentrate,” and these patterns became a daily, unofficial part of his therapy. Some mornings early on, he’d stand there and say, “Dang, I can’t remember this.” He would tell himself “focus, focus, focus,” and his therapist would tell him “relax, relax, relax.”  His physical therapist was so taken with the patterns that he had Terrence work with other patients in recovery. Today, he still does his martial arts patterns daily and has returned to teaching martial arts.

As a child in New Mexico, his parents sent him to summer swimming lessons, but as he puts it, “It never quite took.”  He remembers that he might have done a bit of showing off with a sprint across the pool or a dive off the high board, but his real confidence as a swimmer was not developed in childhood.

Today, Terrence is an unattached swimmer who mostly swims solo at 6:00 a.m. He enjoys the water much more and is a physically and mentally stronger swimmer. During his three years of intensive accident recovery, he would get into the water as part of therapy or when he had access to a pool.  His breakthrough moment in committing to swimming came last year when he watched the last round of the Paralympics. He found himself thinking, “Here are people more handicapped than I am doing this. I can do it.”

Once his sons Brendan and Alexander got wind of his desire to swim, they pushed Terrence to sign up for the USMS 1-Hour ePostal earlier this year. Alexander counted his laps. Terrence reports, “Every time I started slowing down, he said, ‘Dad, you’re taking too long.’ Terrence completed 1750 yards in the hour-long swim; he was both hooked and encouraged. (see photo of Terrence Keller proudly wearing his 2017 1 Hour E-Postal T-Shirt above)

It turned out that when Terrence was slowing down during that one-hour swim, he was thinking long and hard about charting new waters in his personal life. Being legally blind means that Terrence is no longer driving. He can see straight ahead fairly well, but the accident greatly exacerbated a condition called retinosis pigmentosa, which in its severest form results in tunnel vision. After Terrence returned home from the recovery facilities, he began using the local disability transportation service.

Sadly, or maybe not, the service sometimes forgot him or came at the wrong time. Every time they really messed up his reservations, he would receive a very nice apology by text from a transit company dispatcher.  The texts were so nice that he would share them with his sons, who said, “Dad, ask who it is.”  So one day, Terrence did. He received a text, “This is Michelle,” along with a photo. After texting with Michelle for a year, that one hour of thinking and swimming inspired him to ask her out on a date.

Michelle and Terrence have more than transit in common. She is a former high school backstroker and was sorely missing the water.  Before meeting on that first date, they exchanged texts about the Senior Games and she asked him to let her know if he would be going. She would come to watch.

After a terrific first date, where they both found more to talk about and more common ground than either could have dreamed, they started swimming together.  Michelle took one look at Terrence’s strokes and knew that she could build them into decent form. They began training for this year’s Visalia Senior Games. Michelle was so confident in Terrence that she gave him the courage to learn the block start. She walked him through the progression time and time again with patience and faith in his ability to continue to master new skills. He tackled the fear and used determination to learn the start. And in March, a week before the Senior Games, he proposed. She accepted.

While working with Terrence on his strokes, Michelle got back into the water too. The pair joined a medley relay team with Michelle swimming backstroke and Terrence anchoring with freestyle. Their team placed third. Terrence’s work with Michelle paid off. He swam the 50 fly to a first-place finish and the 50 free to a third-place finish. (see photo inset of Terrence and Michelle with medal –“Terrence and Michelle at the March 26, 2017 Visalia Senior Games”)

Terrence Keller

Terrence and Michelle were so inspired by their successes at the Senior Games that they turned their attention to open water swimming, where Terrence reports that he still gets the butterflies but uses the message he gave to his children and has been living himself: “no matter what, don’t quit.” In spite of sighting being a big challenge, Terrence is exhilarated by the feeling of freedom that comes with open water swimming. La Jolla Cove is one of his favorite swims. (see photo inset of Terrence at La Jolla)

Terrence Keller

Building on their teamwork, they entered the Half Moon Bay Aquathon in April. Together they ran and swam their way to a first-place finish in the relay division. In June, they eloped (see inset, photo of Terrence and Michelle on their wedding day, June 16th) and spent their honeymoon in the Sierras kayaking and dancing under the stars.

Terrence Keller

This winning teamwork extends beyond their athletic endeavors. Michelle has become Terrence’s “seeing-eye lady.” No more will Terrence receive sweet apologies from the transit company dispatcher. Today she is the CEO of Keller Transit and both dispatches and drives the family car wherever they need to go. They need to go quite a few places, as she and Terrence continue their swimming and are both working for the local school district.

Terrence explains where he is today: “I feel like I’ve come a long way back. My vision will never be the same, but my physical and mental coordination has come back to the point that I’m running, swimming, and competing again. The best showing of my progress mentally is that some doctors thought I would never be able to come back to work. Last year, I substituted in a community day school. Last week, I went to multiple schools and in five days taught four different grade levels. If things work out, I’ll have an expanded role supervising teacher interns next year. I attribute that to a love of teaching and not giving up.”  

Terrence’s perspective is that endurance athletics require determination and that he used that very trait to recover. His advice to anyone facing significant challenges: “First and foremost, don’t give up. No matter how bad it seems. Believe in yourself when no one else will. You have the power within to do it.”  He knows that the accident could have left him jaded, but it didn’t. If anything, it made him more determined and inspired.

Terrence summarizes where he is today as a swimmer by looking back to his beginnings as an athlete. “As a kid, I loved to run. At triathlons I started to like swimming. Swimming helped me recover because when I first started swimming with Michelle, it brought us closer together. Now when I swim, I feel it as a meditative exercise. It feels good. Swimming can be like running where sometimes you have those magical days and everything clicks. Today I used my drag parachute. It was a beautiful morning and it felt effortless to move through the water. Finally, at 58, swimming is more effortless than it is work.”

You could say the same about Terrence’s life in general. Today he has his sons, his health, a sparkling and joyful love, the regained ability to teach others in school and martial arts, and a newfound confirmation of his tremendous inner strength.

Lessly Wikle Field

Lessly Wikle Field is an Albany Aquatic Masters member and coach. Her favorite stroke is butterfly and her favorite event is anything with the word “medley” in it. 

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