Kaitlin Noonan has an inspiring story about how being on a team changed her life.

Kaitlin Noonan burst into tears after the final home swim meet of her high school career.

The Hannibal senior had cried before, but never in this way.

“Those were happy tears,” she told her mother on the way home, explaining how it was a first for her. 

To understand what led to those watery eyes requires knowing what it means to Noonan to even be part of a team in the first place.

“It means a lot to me,” the homebound student said. “I've never been a part of something in my life until I was on this swim team for three years. I felt like I was a part of something, and I felt accepted. It's just something that I've always wanted in my life. I just wanted to be like everybody else.”

— — — 

Noonan has long dealt with bullying from peers who perceived her as being different than them. 

The problems escalated in middle school, according to her parents, Joe and Karan Noonan. The family made a decision in 2013 to enter Kaitlin into the Hannibal School District's homebound student program.

What that means, in a nutshell, is Kaitlin does all her classwork from off-site locations such as her family's home or at Ole Planters Restaurant, which her family has owned since 1976.

“I don't really have a normal life when it comes to school,” Kaitlin said. “Being at home or maybe in the restaurant or maybe going to the board office on the computer, I mean, this high school experience is worth it to me.”

Kaitlin isn't constrained to remain inside a school building for seven hours a day. With that being said, her schedule is not a breeze.

“Not only does she (have classwork) on the computer, she also has therapies that she attends,” Karan said. “We're not sitting at home relaxing. We're in the car going to appointments, trying to squeeze everything in.”

For much of Kaitlin's life, her social circles were limited to the community at Holy Family Catholic Church and girls she met through dance lessons.

Kaitlin admits she has often wanted to be seen in public as little as possible.

“I had this fear of going places where people my own age could see me,” she said. “They taunted me when I was growing up, and I didn't have very many friends. I feel like I didn't belong anywhere. I didn't know who my actual friends were. I was being bullied my entire life. I mean, like, so much that I wanted to attempt suicide.”

(Kaitlin received appropriate help when experiencing suicidal thoughts.)

— — —

Sometimes, it's the small moments that make the biggest impact.

Kaitlin was in the hot tub at the Hannibal YMCA in the fall of 2014 when the high school swim team gathered nearby to begin practice.

Kristen Shores, the team's coach at the time, saw Kaitlin and recognized her. Shores is a learning specialist for the district, and she knew the then-sophomore from when they would meet for speech therapy.

“Kaitlin was just swimming doing a P.E. credit or something like that,” Shores recalls of the chance encounter. “I knew a little bit of background and thought she would be a great asset to our team.”

Shores extended an invitation for Kaitlin to join the squad. 

Kaitlin hesitated, unsure what to think.

“I had this fear,” she said. “I'm like, I don't think I can do this. I'm not good. I've never swam competitively before. I had this fear that the other girls were mean and weren't going to accept me. I was like, I don't think I can do this.

“But I just gave it a try.” 

— — — 

Kaitlin dived head-first into her first swim season. 

Declining an offer to take a behind-the-scenes role as a team manager, she began training for freestyle and backstroke races. 

“Why is everybody swimming faster than me?” Kaitlin remembers thinking. “I mean, I'll never keep up with them. I knew the terms, I knew the distances, but I had never done it before.”

It took awhile for her to adapt to the sport. Soon, she learned she loved being in the water.

“When I swim, it feels like I am free to be whoever, and I can just swim,” she said. “I just swim as far as possible until I get out of breath and tired.”

Kaitlin entered her first season still getting a knack for strokes and techniques. 

Shores said she quickly caught on.

“She just jumped in the water and worked as hard as she could and made relationships and built friendships through the swim team,” Shores said. 

By her junior year, Kaitlin was regularly competing at meets in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke in addition to racing as part of relay teams. 

One moment during her junior season stands out above the rest. Mindy Prenger, who had taken over as coach, entered Kaitlin into a 200 freestyle race — double the distance she was accustomed to.

“I didn't even know I was going to do one until the very last minute,” she said. “Somehow, I succeeded and I finished.”

As Kaitlin's confidence grew, her times dropped — especially by the time her senior season came around.

In the 50 freestyle, for example, Kaitlin often posted a time over one minute when she first began. 

On Feb. 2, she bested that by quite a bit.

“I went from over a minute to beating my time to 41.44 seconds,” Kaitlin said.

A week later at the Independent League Championship meet in Kansas City, she set a new personal best in the 200 freestyle by more than five seconds.

“I beat my time from 3 minutes, 40 seconds, 99 milliseconds and shaved down a total of five seconds to 3 minutes, 35 seconds and 54 milliseconds,” she said. 

“It really meant something to her,” Prenger said. “Her times really improved dramatically. You could tell she felt like, 'Oh, I'm not just doing this for fun anymore. I can do this. I can get better at this.' I really thought this year was that turning point for her.”

— — —

There is no reason to sugarcoat the situation. 

Nothing in this world is perfect, and that includes Kaitlin's time as a Lady Pirate swimmer.

There have been days when she felt like an outsider, and others when she put teammates in difficult situations, she said.

“I've taken conversations too far, and it caused a lot of controversy to the team and to my parents and the coach,” Kaitlin said. “I said some things I shouldn't have said.”

Through it all, however, Kaitlin and her teammates learned lessons about how to respect each other's differences while working together toward common goals, Prenger said.

“There were some ups and there were some downs,” Prenger said. “With life, we have ups and downs. I think it was good for the girls to see that not everybody is the same, and it's okay to be different. As a coach, it was nice to watch the transformation of how she was kind of on her own, doing her own thing, and the girls really said, 'We're a team.'

“You could see as the team progressed, especially this year, how she really interjected herself and opened up to us.” 

— — —

Kaitlin notices how being on the team has helped her grow on a personal level.

“It built up my self-esteem,” Kaitlin said. “It made me slowly get over the fear that not everybody is passive-aggressive and stuck up and fake.”

Looking back three years ago, she said she never could have imagined being part of a team like she has.

“I didn't think I would be part of a team,” she said. “When I was in dance, I never got picked for a competition team because of anxiety and nervousness and stage fright. I mean, I do have stage fright. I have the fear of performing in front of people, competing in front of people. I don't like people watching me. I prefer my personal space.” 

The way Kaitlin has overcome challenges and found her place is what makes her time on the squad so special, Karan said.

“There are just not enough words to express how beneficial being on the swim team has been for Kaitlin,” she said. “Just the blessings are tremendous. There's no way to sum up what it means to her.”

— — — 

When this season came to an end, it hit Kaitlin hard.

A flood of emotions hit her during that Senior Night meet when she experienced uncontrollable emotions rooted in joy.

For once, Kaitlin had found her place.

She had never felt that way before.

“I never thought that this day would happen,” she said.