Swimmer Tayla Clement has plenty to smile about, but can't show it video

PETER MEECHAM/Stuff.co.nz

Tayla Clement is a young Paralympic swimming hopeful. She has Moebius Syndrome, which causes facial paralysis and means she cannot smile.

Four lithe bodies cut the water at Auckland's National Aquatic Centre.

A prosthetic leg is propped against the poolside cage of balls and foam mats, its metal knee joint curving out to a shiny black socket bearing a silver fern. At the end of lane six a wheelchair awaits.

Here, their owners can shed their props, their differences sliding under the cover of this wet, blue cloak of anonymity.

While Tayla was treated for club feet at birth, she was not diagnosed with face-paralysing Moebius Syndrome until she ...

While Tayla was treated for club feet at birth, she was not diagnosed with face-paralysing Moebius Syndrome until she was four months old.

You have to know to notice the single foot pumping the water as Jesse Reynolds breast-strokes his way down the 50m pool. You have to know to notice Georgia Gray's limp arm as she backstrokes, expertly rolling her shoulder to hold a straight trajectory.

But even if you knew, you'd never notice Tayla's Clement's disability as she swims in endless laps to the rhythm of coach Gary Francis's "Two, one, hup".

It's not until she glides in to swig from her drink bottle that you see it, that mouth with edges curled down like a handlebar moustache. The mouth that cannot smile.

But please, put away your pity. Tayla doesn't need it. If we could only see her smiling, says coach Francis, her face would be fixed with a permanent grin.

Tayla Clement, aged almost two, with mother Nicki. Photo: John Kirk-Anderson/Fairfax NZ

When Tayla was born 17 years ago, in Christchurch, her parents saw only a beautiful baby girl.

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They already knew from an earlier scan that she had talipes, or club feet. Her right ankle was hard up against her shin and her left wasn't much better. Within hours doctors were manipulating Tayla's ankles and putting on the first of weekly bandages to ease the feet into a more natural position.

One or two of those ribbons of discomfort are still lying somewhere around the family's North Shore home. But there was more trauma to come. 

Nobody thought twice about what mum Nicki calls Tayla's "wee triangle look" - the flat deadpan cheeks and "stare-you-out" eyes. Or at least, nobody voiced any concerns to Nicki. A first time mum, she just figured her new daughter would smile when she was good and ready.

The lactation consultant worried when Tayla couldn't latch on to breast feed; the paediatrician noticed that when he spun her, her eyes fixated instead of flicking from side to side. In the sun and wind Tayla would thrash her head as she couldn't squint to protect her eyes. And Nicki worried about her hearing - when a door banged she would never look startled.

But it wasn't until paediatric neurologist Paul Shillito made Tayla cry when she was four months old that she was diagnosed with the rare Moebius Syndrome. She cried without scrunching her face. 

With the practised patter that speaks of 17 years of medical appointments and desperate trawling for information, Nicki explains Moebius Syndrome's impacts.

"It affects the sixth and seventh cranial nerve. The sixth - your eyes don't track left and right and the seventh causes facial paralysis."

Tayla's hearing, though, is mostly fine. "Except sometimes, when I don't want to listen to mum," she cackles. And there's nothing wrong with the vocal chords that strum up that characteristic tinkling laugh.

The club feet are related. With only her little toes sticking out from the plaster, Tayla would walk around bent-kneed. Now, her fellow swimmers wonder how she can so easily bear that quad-burning exercise sitting at right angles against the wall. 

"We used to do it at training and everyone would be, like, dying," Tayla says, laughing. "That's why I've got massive thighs - because I used to sit against the wall."

Even after two operations and years of stretch-and-bandage, stretch-and-bandage, Tayla's ankles remain strangely rigid.

Nicki rises onto the balls of her feet, heels arched high as if in skyscraper heels. Tayla tries the same but locks up at about half the height.

It's those recalcitrant ankles that have enabled Tayla to dream of swimming at next year's Rio Paralympics.

It's 8.15am and through the National Aquatic Centre windows you can see the traffic inching to work along Auckland's Northern Motorway. Tayla and her training mates have already been working for 45 minutes.

She's been up since 6.20am, checked her phone, like any regular teen. Before heading to the pool she has one of those breakfasts in a box and checks her blood sugars. As if the family didn't have enough to deal with, Tayla was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 3.

"You'd have to pinch skin and inject - she screamed at me 'I hate you mummy'," Nicki remembers, not fondly. "You were such an easy child."

That laugh again, which fills the room and sets everyone going. There's an easy banter between mother and daughter. Nicki scolds Tayla for saying 'like' too often. Tayla mocks Nicki for trying to make a swimming comeback at the 2017 Masters: "emphasis on the word trying".

Nicki used to swim and play waterpolo for New Zealand, no doubt influencing Tayla's choice of sport.

The white board at the end of lane six setting out the squad's training schedule is gibberish to the uninitiated - 2xfree on 2:00 DPS; 2xpush 15mx + 1:15. But you don't have to understand the instructions to know the endless repetition looks awfully dull.

It takes a particular kind of person to endure or even enjoy drills with no promise of an eventual boredom-breaking game. Tayla is obviously that person. "Swimming = Life!!!!!" her Twitter profile pronounces.

"I think swimming is the only sport where you train as much as you do and you get so little back," Tayla admits. "But when you go to nationals, or last year when I went overseas to the Pan Pacifics, it's those moments. You've worked so hard and you get a result. It might be 0.01 of a second but even that - yeah, that feels good. I'm going to keep going and I want to keep getting better."

But the past year's frustrations have led even her to question what she's doing here.

Having started swimming at about 11, Tayla joined the paraswimming "accelerate to excellence" programme. At about 14, she signed on with Gary Francis at North Shore Swimming Club, whose alumni include Lauren Boyle, Moss Burmester and Gary Hurring.

Francis's squad was able-bodied, mixed and aged 13-17. Probably the best age group squad in New Zealand at the time, he says. 

"Ability wise very good, training very hard, but you're dealing with a whole range of teenage issues. So a new swimmer comes in, a swimmer with a disability, a swimmer who will certainly stand out. So, not always the best combination to fit in with a group that is already well established and already has a pecking order. Within a very, very short space of time, I would have said that Tayla was the most popular person in the squad.

"She's so kind, she's so positive, she's funny. She's really intelligent, in an emotionally intelligent way. She has such a wonderful personality it just rubs off on everyone else. She's a pretty special kid."

Even if she was the squad's worst swimmer he'd have kept her on just for what she brought to the group. But she did have potential and plenty of it so when Francis took over as national development coach for para-swimming in July 2014 he was keen to harness that.

Paralympic swimmers are classified depending on the severity and impact of their disability, with S1 being the most severely physically impaired and S10 the least disabled. World-beating Kiwi Sophie Pascoe, who was born with no disabilities but lost her lower left leg in an accident, is classified as S10.

Tayla's rigid ankles make her an S9, but Francis believes that's harsh considering how much they constrain her pace. Although only about 15 per cent of swimming power comes from the feet, a good kick enables a swimmer to sit higher in the water and use their 85 per cent pulling power to the max.

In backstroke, Tayla's inability to rotate her ankles means she'd actually be better off having no feet at all, Francis says. Breaststroke is also out. So Tayla has had to fight harder to progress up her class.

Nonetheless, she was tracking towards qualifying for Rio. Over 400m, the pulling power in that broad expanse of back and shoulders can overcome her weak kick.

Tayla last year competed at the Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships in California - her first international meet. Her first event was the 50m freestyle heat. She was overawed.

"I don't even think I was thinking about my swim, to be honest. I was just 'Oh, this is exciting'. Knowing me I was probably thinking 'Oh, those togs look nice; that's quite a good-looking guy over there'.

"But in the finals, you go out from the marshalling area and you stand behind their block and they say 'Lane six, Tayla Clement from New Zealand'. I was like 'Oh, yeah, this is actually real now. I'm actually doing this.' It was such an amazing experience."

But before her 400m freestyle heat, Tayla was sent into a panic. Her blood sugar was dangerously low.

"Literally one minute before I was about to race, the Australian team doctor came over and I had to scull a can of pure coke. She brought over a diet coke first and I was like - that's not going to do anything! I was supposed to be thinking about my race and what tactics I was going to use and all I could think about was 'Oh my god, I'm going to spew'."

She can laugh about it now, especially since she swam a personal best time. But ever since she has struggled to keep her diabetes under control. She's had to reduce her pool sessions from two hours to 1-1½ hours. That's good news for making it to on time to Westlake Girls High, where she is in her final year. But bad news for her prospects.

Before this year's nationals in April she was considering quitting. A run of record times - including her first personal best in the 100m freestyle in more than four years - put paid to that.

Her winning 400m freestyle time of 5:26.38 ranks her 22nd in the world and is still 10 seconds short of the Rio qualifying time. Tayla still hopes to make the time before the end of qualifying next year. Francis is less optimistic. He's hoping for Tokyo in 2020, if she can get the diabetes under control and return to full training.

But Tayla is used to disappointment.

In 2006, 8-year-old Tayla made the front page of Wellington's Dominion Post. The Clements were living in Raumati and Tayla had been bumped off Hutt Hospital's waiting list for plastic surgery to help Tayla smile.

The response was extraordinary. A class of schoolchildren sent special messages. Cookie Time sent a pile of cookies. A random guy - no millionaire - who had just sold his house offered the family $15,000. They said no.

By the time she finally got the operation in 2008 the family had moved to Tauranga. Tayla had been bullied. Kids told her straight out she was ugly. She was excited, at the promise of a smile and the promise of fitting in.

It was Guy Fawke's night when Hutt plastic surgeon Charles Davis took one of her temporalis, or chewing muscles, lengthened it with fibrous tissue from her right thigh and attached it to the corner of her mouth. Tayla remembers demanding from her hospital bed that they make the fireworks stop. The idea was that when she clenched her teeth the sides of her mouth would curl up. 

What no-one knew is what it would be like, after. When they got home, her younger sister Georgia screamed and ran upstairs. Nicki tried to steer Tayla away from mirrors. She failed.

"It literally looked like I'd been beaten to a pulp," Tayla remembers. "My face was just so swollen, it was huge. I had bruising all under my eyes."

It was a year before Tayla's face returned to normal. Going back to school "wasn't the nicest thing". But worse still, there was no dramatic change.

"It gave me better lip closure, made my mouth less down-turned, but apart from that there's nothing. I was at that age where I thought OK, yeah, I'm going to have the operation and after this I'm going to be able to smile and I was really excited for it. Straight after the operation I was like 'Mum, can I smile yet?'

"I guess when you think like that, you're expecting you're going to be able to do something and to not have it happen...that was really hard."

Tayla has been given the option of a new, more invasive smile operation, called a free muscle transfer. Nicki is an advocate but now that she's older than 16, it's Tayla's choice. Perhaps unsurprisingly given her last experience, she's decided against the surgery. But it's not for the reasons you might imagine.

"We were all made to be unique and we all try so hard to fit in with each other. But if you are born with something that is so different and so unique then why try and change that?"

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