‘A unique ability’

10-year-old Morgan Zaffino makes you redefine limitations

Pictured from left to right are Elora Watkins, Jamestown YMCA Jets swim team member, Maria Roehmholdt, Jets assistant coach, Jason Chinni, Jets head coach and Jets member Morgan Zaffino.

In many ways, Morgan Zaffino is your typical 10-year-old — eager for independence and dreaming of what the future holds, like getting behind the wheel of a car.

But while most kids her age are content to take part in a handful of activities, her to-do list is packed. Each activity on her list gets 100 percent of her effort — and she’s really good at a lot of stuff.

It doesn’t seem to matter that she has one arm and one leg.

She obviously doesn’t drive a car, but she will… For now, she keeps her parents, Melody and Mark, on the go. They don’t want any special attention and certainly don’t like to brag, but they’re pretty proud of her ambition and her accomplishments — mom is a bit more apt to proceed with caution with some pastimes, like Morgan’s new Go-Kart.

“She wants to do everything,” Melody said. “I like to tr

y everything except girly stuff,” Morgan clarified, as she turned her chair toward her mom. She talked about some of the stuff she did during a recent stay at Camp Onyahsa.

Photo submitted to the Times Observer Morgan Zaffino poses in her soccer uniform.

This year was Morgan’s fourth year to attend YMCA Camp Onyahsa on Lake Chautauqua.

“It was pretty fun,” she said. “I made some new friends.”

While she was making friends, she also tried zip lining, a Tarzan swing and climbing a rock wall. There were also scavenger hunts, skits, and campfires. “There was a tug-of-war,” she said. “Of course, the girls won.”

Her mornings at camp started about the time the sun came up with a refreshing routine. “Early in the morning there’s a first call for Polar Bear,” she said. For anyone unfamiliar with camp traditions, that’s an early-morning dip in a lake. “After five days you get a patch.” Morgan proudly proclaimed herself an official “baby polar bear.”

Just when it started to sound as if she rarely takes time to relax, she announced that Sundays are her day of rest and she also loves to read. Her favorite subject — superheroes. If she could be a superhero, she would choose the Flash. “He’s the fastest man alive,” she said as she pulled up the leg of her shorts to show the comic book decor on her prosthetic leg. “There’s all sorts of stuff he can do.”

Jamestown YMCA Assistant Coach Maria Roehmholdt supports Morgan Zaffino as she prepares to dive.

When it comes to doing all sorts of stuff, Morgan relies on her limbs on her left side. She had her right arm and leg amputated following an accident when she was 2-1/2 years old. She has a prosthetic leg, which she uses for lots of activities like skiing, soccer, and softball. She doesn’t use it when she swims.

Morgan is a member of the Jamestown YMCA Jets swim team. She took swimming lessons there when she was between six months to one-year-old, Melody said.

“Her teacher saw how she progressed,” she said. “They strongly suggested she join the team.”

Paralympic swimming competitions have taken her to quite a few destinations including Cincinnati, California, and Georgia, Melody said. They’ll be headed to Ithaca, N.Y., in November.

“I compete against other people with disabilities,” Morgan said. Those disabilities aren’t always obvious. “Some disabilities aren’t visible. Like blind people. Sometimes you can’t tell they have a disability.”

Morgan Zaffino skis at Holimont Ski Club in New York.

Morgan’s long-time swim coach doesn’t believe Morgan has a “disability.”

“What she has is a unique ability to redefine what you are capable of,” said Maria Roehmholdt, assistant aquatics director at the Jamestown YMCA. “What people may believe you can do and what you believe are different. She has the ability to make you stop dead in your tracks. She makes you rethink what limitations are, what personal drive is, and what motivation is.”

“I have had Morgan as a swim student and a swimmer on our team from the time she was six months old,” Roehmholdt said. “She is the same determined, gutsy, funny, girl. Give credit to her parents on that.”

“When she joined Jets, it told them (the Zaffinos) that the team will not judge her, or treat her differently. They will see her as a swimmer. Plain and simple,” Roehmholdt said. “At meets, people may stare, or comment, but don’t worry. She will be part of the Jets. We are family and she will feel more love and acceptance than judgment. It has been five years. I think they would say I was correct.”

Morgan is part of the 8 and Under Girls’ 100 free relay and 100 medley relay record, Roehmholdt said. “She dives off the blocks. She dives WELL off the blocks,” she said. “She missed a district time by .3 seconds as a nine-year-old.”

Morgan Zaffino climbs a rock wall.

“These are not small everyday accomplishments. These are milestone achievements,” she said. “These are not things a child with a ‘disability’ does. They are things a child with a unique ability does.”

Roehmholdt attributes Morgan’s achievements to her dedication, drive, and ambition. As her swim coach, she treats Morgan the same as all the other Jets. “If her form or technique is off, she hears it. What she does with that feedback is what makes her accomplish the aforementioned milestones,” she said, “For the most part, she is a 10- year-old girl who deserves to have fun and not always be perfect.”

Morgan’s participation in paralympic competitions has led to a new program at the YMCA, according to Roehmholdt.

“In 2016 we (the Zaffinos and Jets coaches) attended our first Para informational clinic,” she said. “I was hooked. I knew if we got a little more involved we (the coaches) could get Morgan even farther than an 8 and under team record.”

After the last paralympic clinic in Ohio, Roehmholdt and Jason Chinni, YMCA aquatic director and head coach of Jets, were driving home and discussing starting a Para Prep swim clinic. This year they did it. “In July we started offering an hour-long swim clinic that is for any individual ages 5 and up, that meets the paralympic standards,” she said. “Our goal was to have veterans, students, adults and children learn the sport, become involved in our Jets family and compete in a Para meet in November.” To date, no one has gone to the clinic. “We are not giving up,” she said. “Like Morgan, we are determined to have this succeed.”

Morgan Zaffino takes her dad, Mark, for a ride in her Go-Kart.

Morgan has also made quite an impression out of the water. She was not the child picking daisies in the outfield when she started T-ball. She was making double and even triple plays.

She currently plays third base or outfield on her softball team. When it’s her turn at bat, everyone pays attention. There was one line drive that Morgan won’t soon forget. “I started crackin’ the balls out there,” she said. “It hit the girl right smack in the gut.”

Like any 10-year-old, Morgan isn’t quite ready to think about heading back to school. She does like reading and math class and there is a non-sport activity she’s looking forward to. She plays the trumpet.

She didn’t have to think long and hard about a future career when asked. “I want to be a fireman,” she said. “The reason why I want to do that is I want to help people.”


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