New Albany (Ind.) High School senior Rachel Klein is a champion, a swimmer who already has won six sectional medals and set four school records as a freestyle sprinter. She wins most of the races she enters. She fits into other categories: daughter, teammate, honor student, athlete, friend. But the term that defines her is scary, because the statistics indicate it’s a losing game. Klein is a teenage single mother. Pregnant at 15, she gave birth to daughter Kayelynn when her classmates were beginning their sophomore year. The probability of a happy end to her high school career was not good.
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Only one-third of teen mothers finish high school and receive their diplomas, and fewer than 2 percent graduate from college by age 30, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Klein, with a strong support system and fierce determination, is beating those odds. She is favored to win multiple events in Saturday’s sectional meet and has committed to swim for Bellarmine University, where she has received athletic and academic scholarships. She plans to major in exercise science.
“What she has done is pretty remarkable,” New Albany coach Steve Bonifer said. “Most people her age, at 15, would not have come back from that.”
Finished as a freshman?
Klein discovered she was pregnant in December 2009, in the middle of the swim season. She thought it meant the end of her career.
“Being a dramatic teenage girl, I thought everything was down the tubes for me,” she said. “I had such big plans for myself, with my swimming and academics. It was such a big thing to happen.”
The worst part was telling her parents (Grover and Lynne), her coach and her best friend, Hannah Manger. “I didn’t want to believe it,” Manger said.
Decisions had to be made. Klein briefly considered giving up the child for adoption, but she quickly backed away from that option.
“Looking back, that’s crazy for me to say,” she said. “I could have never given her up. I couldn’t imagine her not being here.”
Klein didn’t want to give up swimming, either. The physical changes were already dragging her down, yet she competed in the sectional (helping the Bulldogs win the 200-yard freestyle relay) and the state finals. But her year-round training ended. She gained 65 pounds.
Take a year off?
Kayelynn arrived in August 2010, and with her came all the responsibilities. Klein’s plan was to sit out her sophomore season and return to swimming after a year off.
“I had taken so much time off,” she said. “I had a small child and it was very time-consuming. But my teammates and coach wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Bonifer knew that once Klein gave up competing, she would not return.
“If an athlete sits out a year, most of the time they never come back,” he said. “As a coach, they say to treat everyone the same. Well, you really don’t. I thought this was a special situation. You do make exceptions in extreme situations. So I told her to come back and we would work out her practice schedule.”
Manger also pushed her friend to return.
“As a mother, she had her time with Kayelynn and her family, but she needed something for herself,” Manger said. “Swimming was a way to push herself.”
So Klein rejoined the team in December. Her body had changed. She had lost the muscle tone in her legs, and she had lost her muscle memory.
“I looked a lot different,” she said. “My body type was a lot different.”
But her determination was intact.
She quickly regained her form. In February she was a member of two winning relays in the sectional, and she capped that day with a victory in the 50 free. When her parents presented her the medal on the podium and she held Kayelynn during the ceremony, it suddenly hit her.
“That was the best memory I could think of. Ever. I held her up there and it was awesome,” Klein said.
The everyday grind
Kayelynn is now an energetic 2-year old who demands attention. After a long school day and a two-hour swim practice, Klein goes home to do homework and be a mother to Kayelynn, who is in day care during school hours.
She spends the bulk of her time — including weekends, when friends are making plans — with Kayelynn.
“My daughter does take so much energy and so much time,” Klein said. “Long nights are a little rough. I put being a mother before everything. Before swimming sometimes. Sometimes I have to pick one over the other.”
She couldn’t do it alone. Kayelynn’s father is not part of the picture (and hasn’t been for two years, Klein said), but her parents have been her strongest supporters. Her teammates have accepted her situation. They have made it work.
“My parents have done everything in the world,” Klein said. “That’s more than I could have ever asked for. Being pregnant, that’s obviously not what the parent of a 15-year-old wants to hear. They accepted it and come to really love Kayelynn.”
At first Lynne Klein was worried and wary of her daughter’s commitment and complete understanding of the burdens. Rachel attended counseling and child-birth classes to prepare, but reality can be rude.
“We were scared to death,” Lynne said. “She was forced to to grow up pretty quickly. She has turned out a whole lot better than we ever expected. She has given up an awful lot to be a teen mom, to be able to manage it all. She has been a great mom.”
“Her parents and family were behind her 100 percent,” Manger said. “I knew she would get through it. It was a remarkable comeback. Having Kayelynn made her want to come back and work that much harder. She’s just improved so much more. I couldn’t be prouder of her.”
Issues remain. The stigma of being a single teen parent still follows her. People make comments. She takes it all in stride.
“I know the potential that I have,” Klein said. “I know I need to make myself the best person I can be for her. If that means giving things up, that’s what I have to do. In the long run, that’s what is best for her. I’ve done what I know I need to do.
“One day, when I tell her, Kayelynn will be grateful. One day she will think ‘Thanks for not quitting.’ Maybe I wasn’t the stay-at-home mom, but I think I’m doing things she will be proud of one day, when she sees all the obstacles I’ve overcome.”
Those obstacles will follow her to Bellarmine. Coach John Brucato, surprised to learn of Klein’s motherhood while recruiting her, has promised her he will work with her.
“Swimming has been great for her, in a lot of different ways,” Bonifer said. “She’s a gamer. She can give incredible effort. She can do anything she puts her mind to.”
50 freestyle (24.81 seconds)
Member of record-setting 200 medley relay, 200 free relay and 400 free relay teams
Freshman: Member of winning 200 free relay team.
Sophomore: Won the 50 free, member of winning 200 free relay and 400 free relay teams.
Junior: Won 200 medley relay, member of winning 200 free relay team.