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Despite MS, teacher gets thousands of kids in the swim

Aug. 20, 2013 at 7:53 AM ET

Video: Pat Knisley is a swimming teacher from New Bern, N.C., whose enthusiasm and love have inspired thousands of young students. Despite a 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis and the recent loss of her husband, Knisley continues to get kids in the swim. NBC’s Bob Dotson reports.

You might sit on the sidelines of life. Pat Knisely believes you don't have to stay there.

"Look at me. Look at me!" she whispers, consoling a crying child. The 4-year-old shivers by the side of a swimming pool, crouching in the darkness of his mind.

His swimming teacher plops a towel on her head, sparking a fleeting smile from the frightened boy. "Now remember," Knisely says, "I'm old and —

Pat Knisely
Courtesy Pat Knisely
Pat Knisely with one of her young swimming students.

The boy grins. "Tired."

"That's right. So you have to take it easy on me!"

All the kids at the side of the pool, waiting for their lesson, begin to giggle, including the tearful little boy. "Come on. Jump in!" Pat says. The childhood storm has passed.

In a city surrounded by sea, Knisely wants every child to learn how to swim. She has taught thousands of kids in New Bern, N.C.

Lindsay Sobel still remembers the "Ms. Pat" look that got her into the pool. The 26-year-old tugs her glasses down and frowns over the top of the lenses. “She looked like this,” she laughs, recalling when she was a stubborn 7-year-old.

Pat Knisely
Courtesy Pat Knisely
"Ms.Pat" gets a hug from a student.

"You don’t have to be a winner,” Lindsay's mom, Joan Sobel, tells me. “You just have to learn to swim right.”

Lindsay did better than all right, even though she has Down syndrome. "This one's my favorite,” she says, pulling a gold medal off her wall to show me. She has won 78 state and national championships.

"I'm good!" Lindsay says simply. Good because Knisely listens closely to children like Lindsay, who are often overlooked.

"She never took one of them to the side,” Kristen Wall confides. “Never said, 'Oh, you're different. You're going to have your own private lesson.'"

Wall, a biologist, now trains with dolphins. She learned to swim with Lindsay. Neither was treated like fragile glass.

Knisley knows the pain of a life turned inward. Multiple sclerosis put her in a wheelchair 20 years ago.

"I can't imagine living my life with out MS,” she says. “You learn a lot about who you are."

Like most winners, Pat Knisely doesn't give up, but how she handles loss is perhaps her finest lesson. In 2012, her husband, Jim, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The boy she met at 16 and married at 18 was given just a few months to live.

Jim and Pat Knisely
Courtesy Pat Knisely
Pat Knisely and her husband Jim were sweethearts in their teens.

“I don't see a 61-year-old man,” Pat says, stroking what’s left of Jim’s hair. “I see that 16-year-old kid.” Who still sends her cards signed with a shorthand message: "I'm madly in love with you and can't live without you."

Over the years they learned that a successful marriage requires falling in love many times — with the same person. "It never mattered to Jim how much I weighed, or even if I could walk," Pat says.

Together they raised a houseful of kids, as well as all those swimmers. And even though the children they taught were often overlooked, those children never overlooked them.

Pat looks out the window at her manicured lawn. “We would come home from a radiation treatment (and) it would be mowed. Never knew who did it. The refrigerator would be full of food.” She sighs, marveling at their good fortune. The Kniselys taught those kids the art of living.

Three days after that tender moment, Jim died.

"He'll surround me always,” Pat says. “Always."

The best of Jim lives on in her. We left Pat Knisely lifting Jacob, that frightened little boy, into the pool. "It's raining on you, Jacob,” she says dribbling water on his head and then hugging him tight.

Life can be frightening. Pat Knisely believes it's up to us to make it beautiful. 

For more inspiring stories from Bob Dotson, read his new book, "American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things."

Do you know someone outstanding? Tell Bob Dotson about people whose actions touch others.

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