Obstacles? No worries.

They swim through them.
Ozaukee Press staff

Freshman Sharla Plier has been competitively swimming for years and was excited and a little nervous to join the Port Washington High School team.

Fellow freshman Haley Leute enjoys playing around in the water, but joining the Pirates’ competitive team is a new venture.

Despite the pair’s difference in experience, they’ve got one thing in common: Both have overcome an overabundance of obstacles to reach this point.

Sharla was born with bilateral tibial hemimelia, leading to amputations of her legs at 14 months old.

Haley had ear infections as an infant that caused her to go deaf.

The adaptive athletes knew each other before joining the swim team and have become closer since.

“I think we can relate a lot,” Sharla said.

“Yeah, we can relate,” Haley said.

The rest of the Pirates, co-coach Danielle Peiffer said, accepted their new adaptive teammates.

“The team seemed to take it all in stride. The bonding happened quick,” she said.

The pair’s physical obstacles are as different as were their routes to joining the Pirates’ swim team.

Sharla got prosthetics at 17 months old and was put into the water as an infant, taking lessons through a few local organizations.

She became increasingly active on her prosthetic legs ­— she calls them her “kicks” — and in June 2021 went to Indianapolis for the Endeavor Games, which gives people with physical disabilities a chance to compete. Sharla swam and ran track but field events were canceled due to rain. She qualified for the Move United Junior Nationals in Denver in July, where she swam and competed in field events. She skipped track because she couldn’t get one of her running blades to fit properly on race day.

After three months in a wheelchair, she spent a week in Joliet, Ill., to have a new set of hydraulic kicks made by her favorite prosthetist, David Rotter. Each one weighs 10 pounds.

“They’re quiet,” Sharla said of her new kicks. “The last ones were too loud.”

“I never lost her in a store,” her mother Pamela Plier joked. 

That was a few months after Sharla was the first athlete accepted to be part of the United Training Foundation started by Jason Olejniczak at Adapt & Conquer in Grafton.

“He adapts her training to her abilities and specifically for swimming,” her mother said. “It was great because during the three months that she was in her wheelchair and couldn’t wear her prosthetics, she was still able to go to the gym and workout. “

Now, she attends a fitness class with people without physical challenges.

“She loves this because she feels like she fits right in and can take a ‘regular’ class,” her mother said.

Joining the high school swim team was always on the radar, much due to the fact that Pamela and Peiffer are best friends, and Peiffer’s freshman daughter Brooke is also one of Sharla’s friends.

Danielle Peiffer had been recruiting Sharla for years.

“A lot of adaptive kids don’t do swimming,” she said, adding it was important that Sharla got into the water at an early age.

Sharla swims without her kicks, which she likes because they are painful to wear and create sores on her legs.

As a result, her power comes from a different source.

“I can kick but it doesn’t get me far,” she said. “So I pretty much use my upper body for that.”

She said classmates notice when they see her without her kicks for the first time, but being a member of the team is a blast.

“I love it. It’s the people that bonk my wires,” she said, acknowledging she just made up a new phrase.

Sharla swims the 50-yard freestyle and has tried the 100.

“Physically, they could swim a thousand if they had to,” Peiffer said.

Sharla starts races in the pool. Her goal is to go off the blocks.

Haley had major brain surgery to get bilateral cochlear implants when she was 2, followed by intense therapy twice a week for three years. Her parents fought the insurance company to cover one operation for $250,000 instead of doing both sides separately.

“We have the same fights,” Sharla’s mother said of debates with insurance companies.

Haley wears magnets in the shape of discs on her head that attach to her hearing aid that allow her to hear. She gets her implants’ computer system adjusted each year and can get new discs every seven years.

“She cannot selectively hear so background noise makes it hard to hear people around her. She relies greatly on reading lips and she also has a sign language interpreter for school (Alexandria Thimmesch) which is a game changer for her learning,” her mother Hanna Leute said.

Haley may not get her implants wet, so she swims entirely deaf and “has to rely totally on visual cues and is extremely lucky to have such amazing friends and coaches who have supported her on the swim team,” Hanna said.

Haley has played golf, but never tried competitive swimming.

“I just love playing in the water. Now that I’m on the team it’s even more fun,” she said.

Peiffer met Haley through Brooke at eighth-grade promotion and suggested she join the team.

“She was like, ‘I’m not doing that,’” Peiffer said.

“I was kind of unsure,” Haley said. “But now I’m happy.”

She swims the 50 freestyle and on some relays, and she quickly distinguished herself as a rare athlete on the team, taking on the 100 butterfly.

“We have experienced seniors who won’t do the 100 fly,” Peiffer said.

“I like doing the stroke,” Haley said.

She starts on the side of the pool. While others hear a beep to start the race, Haley watches flashing lights.

The team camaraderie and timing of swimming has helped the pair acclimate to high school. As freshmen, Haley and Sharla got to make new friends before school even started.

Peiffer said she believes every girl should participate in a sport, listing benefits of learning life skills such as perseverance, hard work and getting out of their comfort zones.

“It can be very instrumental in their high school career,” she said.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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