Ed Grisamore

Born in China, Macon swimmer training to compete in 2020 Summer Paralympics 

Madelyn “Mei Mei” White calls two places home.

One is in Orlando, Florida, the city where she spends most of her time. The other is in Macon, where she grew up on a quiet cove near the western shore of Lake Tobesofkee.

When folks ask her about shuffling from Florida to Georgia, she giggles and tells them she lives in “Florgia.’’

Swimming pools also are like another home. She spends more time in the water than a mermaid. She is happy when wet.

“I love the freedom of being in the water and not having to wear a heavy leg around,’’ she said. “I can 100 percent be myself.’’

Mei Mei is 15 years old and has a prosthetic right leg. It helps her get around, except when she is in the water. Then it comes off … and amazing things usually happen.

She is a competitive swimmer. She won a gold and silver medal in the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, two weeks ago.

Her eventual destination, she hopes, will be the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo on Aug. 25-Sept. 6, 2020.

That wouldn’t be far from another home — her birthplace in China.

Mei Mei is the name she brought with her to America when she was 18 months old. Her parents, Michael and Kelley White, named her Madelyn but she still goes by “Mei Mei” (pronounced May-May).

This was not the White family’s first Chinese adoption. Michael and Kelley were high school sweethearts in Douglas, got married in 1990 and moved to Macon in 1993, a year after their son, Keegan, was born. Michael is a local attorney. Kelley is a retired audiologist.

In August 1998, they traveled to an orphanage in Guangzhou, China, and adopted an 11-month-old baby. They named her Mackenzie Lee White. She now is a senior at the University of Georgia.

They adopted Mei Mei six years after bringing Mackenzie into their lives.

“We knew we were ready for another child,’’ Kelley said. “Mackenzie was a special needs adoption, and it was natural to do another one.’’

The adoption agency sent a photograph of Mei Mei and “her tiny little leg,’’ Kelley said.

Mei Mei has had four surgeries. Her first came when she was 2 years old. The most recent was three years ago.

Kelley said not having a leg is all her daughter ever has known, and she has made every adjustment with flying colors.

She took swimming lessons when she was 3 and started swimming competitively at age 5 with the Macon Waves and Swim Macon. When she was 11, she began training with Fred Lamback, a long-time disabilities swim coach from Augusta.

In Orlando, she trains six days a week. This young lady is serious about the sport. She has competed internationally in Great Britain, Berlin and Singapore.

“When she was a child, the doctor told us she was going to walk and would not have to be in a wheelchair, but she was never going to be an athlete,’’ Kelley said. “She has proven that wrong. We always have expected she will do what everyone else does. She has determination. Mom and Dad are just the drivers.’’

Because of her busy schedule, Mei Mei is home-schooled. This gives her greater flexibility to travel. She laughed when I asked if she elects herself class president every year.

“I’m the class clown, the most rebellious, the best student, the prettiest and funniest because I’m the only one,’’ she said.

She also could carry the superlative of “most inspirational.’’ But Mei Mei wants to earn that crown, not have it awarded out of pity.

“I’m a normal person, like everyone else,’’ he said. “I just happen to be missing a leg.’’

She does not try to hide her prosthetic. In fact, she wears shorts most of the time … even in frigid weather.

It sometimes bothers her when people make assumptions. While waiting on her flight to Peru at the airport in Atlanta last month, a man came up and asked if she had served in the military.

“She likes being an inspiration when she is swimming, but she gets upset when people come up and tell her that when all she is doing is walking down the street or getting groceries at the store,’’ Kelley said.

Making the U.S. Paralympics swimming team next year is, of course, her dream. Beyond that, she one day hopes to become an athletic trainer or physical therapist.

For now, though, she’s ready to make a big splash.

“In the pool, I’m doing something,’’ she said. “I want to make my mark on the world.’’

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.

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