When it comes to working out, Erin Ciliv has every excuse in the book. For starters, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, a condition that limits movement in her arms and legs. She cannot bear weight or walk without assistance, and she uses a wheelchair for independent mobility.
Making it even easier to give in to an inactive lifestyle, oftentimes physical therapy and exercise can be painful, frustrating or downright exhausting.
But instead of seeing these obstacles as excuses, she uses them as motivation to achieve some pretty incredible goals. Because at 16 years old, that’s just the type of determined young woman she has become.
And it is this determination to live life on her own terms, along with the encouragement of her family and trainers, that led her to swimming, which is possibly the one activity that offers the Bellevue teenager a reprieve from a world filled with straps and chairs. “I can be wild,” Erin says. “I love to be wild. I love the freedom and the movement. After being in a wheelchair all day, it makes me feel really good.”
“From the moment Erin steps in the water, she is a different person. She is so happy when she is able to move around freely and walk in the water,” says Sara Katz, swim instructor at the Bellevue Club who has been working with Erin for a number of years. And over the years, the progress Erin has made is nothing short of extraordinary.
“You would never think a young girl with Erin’s physical limitations would ever be able to swim without flotation devices, but because of years of practice and encouragement from family and friends, she’s doing just that,” says Erin’s mother, Karen Ciliv. This extraordinary feat is especially evident when the family travels to Turkey during recent summers to visit her father, Süreyya Ciliv, whose job requires him to live there. In the warm, buoyant water of the Mediterranean Sea, Erin can swim up to 400 meters a day with her father by her side.
Both Karen and Erin say none of that would be possible if it weren’t for the training and encouragement she receives at the Bellevue Club.
“They are like a second family,” Erin says of the many members of the aquatics department who work and interact with her on a regular basis. “They keep me going is all I can say. They help me become a better swimmer.”
But spend just five minutes with Erin in the aquatics center and it becomes clear she isn’t the only one whose spirits are lifted when she’s in the pool training.
“Erin is so positive and energetic. She loves to be around people and is very outgoing once she gets comfortable with you,” Katz says. “She absolutely loves all the coaches, lifeguards, and swim instructors. Everyone wants to talk to Erin because she is so inspiring and loving. She sets lofty goals for herself and always tries her best. She is an inspiration to everyone who has the privilege of meeting her.”
And this becomes obvious, as the many staff members stop to give her fist-bumps—her favorite form of friendly affection—as they pass or stop for a smile and a joke, which Erin is always quick to tell.
“They give me strength and hope, so I try to give back to them,” Erin says. “I just keep smiling, because I know it makes them smile.” And according to everyone around her, she is doing just that.
“Erin is a happy child who is excited about life,” Karen says. “People that know her and see beyond the disability know she’s just a regular kid. She loves music, sports, and loves to dance.”
“I have my own little dance,” Erin says. “It’s called the sit-down dance. Since I can’t stand up on my own two feet, why not just sit down and do it.”
And it’s that mentality that allows her to not only dance to her favorite artists, including Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, and Jason Aldean, but also speak several languages. She taught herself Turkish using Rosetta Stone, loves to speak with a British accent, knows American Sign Language, and is an A-student in Spanish at Bellevue High School. She also enjoys drum lessons, therapeutic horseback riding, adaptive skiing, and spending time on Facebook with her friends and relatives from around the world.
“She’s fearless,” Karen says. “And I don’t think she’ll be slowing down any time soon.”
If anything, Erin is only going to be speeding up. After watching her brother, Morgan Ciliv, who has been swimming on the Bellevue Club Swim Team for years, Erin says she has hopes of one day finding a swim team for kids with similar abilities where she can really put her skills to the test. After all, she’s the last person you will find living life on the sidelines.