Legally blind swimmer races her way to Paralympics in Rio

McClain Hermes, who is 15, is excited to compete against the best in the world in Rio de Janeiro, she's hopeful about winning a medal this time or in a future competition and she's ready to represent her country. She's also, like many a teenager, happy to take the opportunity to make her mom cringe.

"That's what I've been saying, I want to get a tattoo," said Hermes. You can't get them in the US, you can in Rio."

Hermes, who is from Dacula and trains with Dynamo Swim Club, is truly at home in the pool. She loves the feeling of competing, a feeling amplified even more by what she can't see.

"It's like seeing through a coffee straw," said Hermes. "If you make a circle and put it to your left eye, that's basically what I see."

Hermes is legally blind -- as she explains with the coffee straw analogy, she has a tiny amount of vision in her left eye only because of retinal detachment. That vision is shrinking. Still, she swims, and swims well enough to qualify to swim three events at the upcoming Paralympics in Brazil.

"I have to remind myself what she's doing is so brave," said Ceceilia Tripp, McClain's swim coach at Dynamo. "It's not easy to have to go through everything just like every other kid in the group without a modification. Really what she does, when I think about it, it takes a really brave person to do that."

Hermes will swim the 100-meter backstroke, the 100-meter breaststroke and 400-meter freestyle events at the Paralympics.

Hermes had better vision when she started swimming, and as it got worse, she had to adapt. Turning is a problem in the pool, and she kept bumping into walls at the end of a lap. Her coach and mother figured out a solution where they tap Hermes with a pole when she is a few strokes from the wall so she knows when to initiate her turn. Despite that challenge and others, Hermes kept swimming.

"You can dive in the pool and, nobody can see ... if you're upset, they can't see you cry," said Hermes. You can sing, talk, you can yell and nobody knows what's happening."

In the pool, Hermes is a star; but you have to get out of the water to see her at her best. In addition to swimming, schoolwork and everything else that goes into being a teenager, Hermes also runs her own charity. It's called Shoes for the Souls, and since 2009 Hermes and her family have collected shoes from all over the area and donated them to the Atlanta Mission.

"To see her want to continue to give back to the community and those in need, it makes both Carmen and myself very proud," said McClain's father Matt Hermes.

The service makes those around her smile, but it's swimming that makes Hermes whole.

"I know I couldn't live without it," said Hermes. "If I was unable to swim, that would be the worst thing ever, because it's just my happy place."

That happy place will transport to Brazil soon enough. True to form, one of the first questions she asked once she qualified for the Games was how she'll keep up on schoolwork (the U.S. team will have tutors to help), and until then, she can have a little fun at her parents' expense about what else she'll do on the trip.

"Get a tattoo maybe!" McClain said. Smiling, she added, "Probably not."