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A Non-Verbal Belle Mead Teen Thrives in the World of Competitive Swimming

Cyrus Kia has autism and apraxia. He is non-verbal. The Montgomery News interviewed his parents, Raman and Jessica Kia of Belle Mead to learn about Cyrus’s swimming journey.

By Pennie Lu | Posted January 3, 2024

“The Olympics is where heroes are made. The Paralympics is where heroes come.” – Joey Reiman.

Jessica Kia was worried about her young autistic son’s lack of ability to swim. Both she, and her husband Raman, know drowning is the leading cause of death for children and adults with autism. The American Red Cross encourages swim classes.

The Kias say they worked tirelessly to find a coach who would be able to navigate the challenges of teaching a non-verbal child. Today, swimming is a major part of Cyrus’ identity.

Cyrus Kia

Montgomery High School student Cyrus Kia of Belle Mead is a competitive swimmer.

In 2011, Cyrus met aquatics instructor Frances Teetsel, who successfully helps those with special needs at the Princeton Fitness and Wellness Center in Montgomery Township. 

Teetsel has now been with Cyrus for 12 years. Most recently, she helped to coach him for a national swim competition — the 2023 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in Orlando, Florida from December 15 to 17.

Teetsel “is a local gem,” according to Jessica. “She made us feel welcome, even when Cyrus was struggling.” 

Cyrus now has a fan club at the pool

“People are always commenting to us about what a joy it is to watch Cyrus swim. He literally smiles in the water. We have a wonderful town,” Jessica says.

Making friends for a non-verbal autistic child can be a challenge in school. However, the Montgomery High School (MHS) Boys’ Swim team and Scarlet Aquatics brought Cyrus an unquestionable sense of community. 

“When Cyrus is in the water, he isn’t limited or judged for his unique style, but rather accepted and embraced for his differences,” Jessica says. “The pool is his home away from home.” 

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Finding a club team

It wasn’t easy. Many clubs were initially excited to meet with him but after learning about his autism, would deny him due to coaching difficulties. 

His father, Raman, persevered despite these rejections to find a suitable team for his son, knowing that if given the opportunity, Cyrus would blow them out of the water.

Eventually, Scarlet Aquatics in Piscataway extended an invitation to Cyrus. He now endures three-hour practice sessions each day with Head Coach Tom Speedling, alongside additional practices with Coach Teetsel and Coach Josh Rosenbluth. 

In total, Cyrus spends at least four hours in the pool every day.  

This year, Cyrus has embarked on numerous journeys to various swim meets across the country, meeting world-class para swimmers such as Trevor Lukacsko, Jonny Pierce, Jamal Hill, and Colleen Young. Their achievements and attitudes left a lasting impression on Cyrus and his family, encouraging them to never give up on their dreams.

Raman and Jessica recalled the moment when they received the autism diagnosis from the doctor, who told them that Cyrus would be too difficult for them to care for.  They committed themselves to raising their son to be just as successful and passionate as any other kid.

Now, they hope to share this message with the community: “Never limit your child’s potential or underestimate them. As parents, it’s our duty to be their relentless advocates, fighting tooth and nail for their right to a fair chance.” 

They say that Cyrus believes in himself too, and that inspires others to believe in him as well. 

Coach Wilma Wong, a national high performance coach for Olympic and Paralympic athletes, says Cyrus is on the brink of realizing his dream of representing Team USA in international competitions.

Another aspiration for Cyrus is to become an athlete-in-residence at the US Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, sharing space with some of the top swimmers he competes against.

Outside of swimming, Cyrus is like any other Montgomery High School student. He loves long bike rides, going to the movies, and rock climbing with his siblings Cameron and Max.

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His parents affectionately describe him as a “blanket mole” who, when not in the water, can be found under a blanket, in soft pants, funny socks, and always down to hang out, especially if it involves pretzels. 

Aptly put by Raman, “Never underestimate the differently abled; include them and take a moment to recognize and celebrate their achievements.”

Raman and Jessica said they want parents of neurodiverse kids to know resources and opportunities exist.

“It’s a privilege to find them in our amazing town—and we thank everyone who has helped Cyrus get to where he is,” they said. ■


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