The AquAbility Story

by Executive Director/Founder, Karen Morrison

The story of how AquAbility began –

I have been teaching aquatics since I was 14. During those 47 years I’ve worked with many children and adults with disabilities. In 2007, I was living in Ketchum, Idaho and working with a young woman named Amanda. We were doing water exercises prescribed by her therapist. Amanda was an amazing, 4-sport, rookie of the year student athlete at Yale when she was injured in a police car chase accident.  She suffered severe traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for months. She was left without the use of her left arm and leg.

Amanda and I worked on water exercises prescribed by her therapist for over a year.  We were both pretty frustrated seeing no real progress with the routine. One day, I asked Amanda if she wanted to try putting her face in the water. She tentatively tried it. She sputtered a bit, but laughed, and that was the beginning of a whole new world for Amanda. Little by little, over time, with a lot of work, Amanda learned a unique freestyle and backstroke using just her right arm and leg. It was the first time after her accident that she had done any activity without the help of another person or piece of equipment for assistance. No crutches. No wheelchair. Swimming alone.  Wow! This was priceless freedom for Amanda! In addition to the physical benefits – Amanda found confidence, independence, and a way to feel successful again in the water. One day Amanda looked at me and said, Coach, I am an athlete – what are we training for besides life? So, Amanda started training for a Paralympic National Swim Meet in Texas in 2009.

When we arrived at the swim meet with Amanda, I looked around the pool during warm-up. The deck was littered with prosthetic limbs, crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, and white canes for people with visual disabilities. The swimmers were amazing, confident athletes and I was overwhelmed and inspired by them! How they accepted their bodies and embraced both their abilities and disabilities. They worked so hard. Swam so well. Achieved goals. They had fun and made friends.

Well… Amanda won three gold medals, and celebrated her 30th birthday at that meet with her twin sister and family cheering her on. I can still feel her hugging me on the pool deck, saying, “Thanks, Coach. I’m an athlete again.”

I returned from that journey with my passion to help others with disabilities ignited. I wanted to share the benefits of the water with many more people with disabilities. And I wanted to do it full time. I immediately jumped in the deep end, so to speak, and founded AquAbility as a non-profit corporation.

In 9 years AquAbility has provided therapeutic aquatics for over 600 children, adults and veterans with disabilities of all kinds. I could tell more stories about children with Autism or cerebral palsy, adults with Parkinson’s, veterans with spinal cord injuries, and many more who are reaping the benefits of AquAbility. We currently serve 150 people every week year-round in programs around Idaho, providing 5000 participant sessions a year in 5 different locations.

In 2017 AquAbility created a unique Certification course to train instructors in therapeutic aquatics for people with disabilities. We have quality, certified staff in our programs, and have certified 50 instructors in trainings around the country.

Completing our first decade, AquAbility has a talented Board of Directors who are committed to the sustainability of AquAbility as we continue to expand and create more satellite programs in communities around Idaho, and provide quality education and training for instructors. We want to serve many more children and adults with disabilities in Idaho and beyond.