SHERIDAN — Sheridan High School head swim coach Brent Moore didn’t have any hesitation. In fact, he welcomed it. When Moore first met Kaleb Yager, Moore saw kindness, a light-hearted aura and swimming ability.
“He’s the nicest kid, and he loves to swim,” Moore said. “He loves the water.”
Moore overlooked Yager’s autism and saw a future piece to his swim team. Very rarely, nowadays, does anyone see Yager’s learning disability. The swimmers simply see a teammate; classmates simply see a friend; and Yager’s family simply sees the life of the party.
Autism hasn’t slowed Yager down. It hasn’t hampered him in any way. If anything, it has enhanced Yager and, in turn, lifted everyone he has come in contact with in his life.
Yager didn’t say a single word for the first five years of his life. Instead of speaking to his mother, Angel, twin sister, Katelyn, or older brother Krisjian, Kaleb owned a unique system of word association with numbers. The family had a master list of over 1,000 numbers, each one representing something different around the house or in Kaleb’s life. For instance, No. 52 meant Fruit Loops cereal.
Around that same time, Kaleb received his diagnoses as low- to mid-functioning on the autism spectrum — a crushing blow, at the time, for a single mother with two other young children to look after.
“I felt devastation,” said Kaleb’s mother, Angel. “It’s one of those things where you have three young kids, and you think they all are going to grow up to be wonderful in this small town.
That devastation quickly transitioned into hope when Margaret Klebba entered the fray.
Kaleb entered the educational world as a non-speaking individual and did so at Holy Name Catholic School. Klebba represented one of the first people to show overwhelming support for Kaleb. Klebba agreed to take Kaleb in her pre-kindergartner class even though he didn’t speak. In less than a year, Kaleb learned 40 words, and his vocabulary grew from there.
It was also around this same time when Kaleb discovered his affection for water. Many autistic children don’t like to be touched or handled, and many prefer tight clothing to feel comfort. Kaleb found water as his safety blanket.
“My mom taught us how to swim, and Kaleb would just go for it,” Katelyn Yager said. “He loved jumping in and I was always really afraid at first. I remember seeing a picture of me in an inner tube and Kaleb was pulling me in the water because I was really afraid at first.”
The Yagers had a inflatable pool in their backyard, along with a trampoline and a swing — their own little personal park because during Kaleb’s early years, he didn’t like the noise and pandemonium of a public-park setting.
Kaleb also didn’t particularly care for long car rides, so the Yagers’ vacations for years consisted of the family loading up the car and driving down Coffeen Avenue to the Holiday Lodge for a not-so-far weekend getaway.
Kaleb didn’t mind one bit.
“All the kid did from the time the Holiday Lodge opened, to the time it closed, was go up and down the slide,” Angel Yager said. “He’d swim and bob all day. He loves the water.”
Kaleb’s affection with water transitioned from comfort to a means of competition during junior high when Moore saw Kaleb for the first time.
Moore urged Kaleb to join the swim team, and Kaleb’s swimming ability has blossomed since.
“For my son to grab onto swimming, understand it and actually want to participate in one of the hardest sports there is, with his disability, it makes me cry,” Angel Yager said. “I’m so happy. I’m elated.”
When it came to joining the high school team as a freshman, Moore had zero hesitation in regards to Kaleb.
“Someone came up to me and said, ‘This coach wants to see if Kaleb wants to swim,’” Angel recalled. “I just thought, ‘What? Nobody wants to take this on.’ And the rest his history.”
Kaleb competed last season as a freshman. He wasn’t the fastest Bronc or a captain, but his effect in and out of the pool remained immeasurable. He’s didn’t miss practice, his attitude never changed and he rubbed off positively on every one of his teammates.
“He’s always so excited about swimming,” Moore said. “It’s nice because if some of the guys, who are fully capable, are having a bad day and Kaleb can be that excited about sixth place in his heat, they have nothing to feel bad about.”
Kaleb puts things in perspective for the state qualifiers. His attitude, consistent attendance and overarching positive effect on the team landed Kaleb something very special. Something every athlete covets. He lettered as a freshman, which made Kaleb the first Yager to earn a letter athletically since Angel did so back in her high school swimming days.
“I’m following in (my mother’s) footsteps,” Kaleb said. “I just feel a lot of proud stuff.”
The decision to award a letter wasn’t a hard one for Moore.
“He showed up every day. That was never an issue,” Moore said. “He wanted to be here, and whenever he’s here, he does everything we ask him to do. Just because he’s not contributing at the state level doesn’t mean he can’t earn a letter. He earned it.”
Kaleb tackled many firsts that initial year with the Broncs. He went on road trips with the team, and not ones just down the road in Gillette or Casper, but overnight meets in Laramie and Cheyenne. Angel, who understandably felt worried for Kaleb, gave the reigns to Moore and the Broncs.
They passed with flying colors.
“As a mother, I told Brett there’s no way he’s going on overnight trips,” Angel said. “He’d say, ‘Why not? We got him.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean you got him?’
“There’s no words to speak for that or the way those boys have rallied around Kaleb.”
Angel Yager recalls dropping off Kaleb for overnight meets, and every time she did, a number of Kaleb’s teammates lent a helping hand, making sure Kaleb had everything he needed.
“Where else could you find that?” Angel Yager said. “Brent Moore is godlike in my book, and those kids are saints.”
Kaleb recently wrapped up his sophomore year with the Broncs with a couple more seasons still on the horizon. Kaleb’s different, only medically speaking. When Kaleb’s tackling a workout set, or on the pool deck during a meet, he blends in. He doesn’t stick out.
“Growing up I was always worried about typical kids making fun of him and accepting him on the team,” Katelyn Yager said. “I see them in the hallways and they cheer him on and it’s really good to see all the boys on the team don’t treat him any different.”
Kaleb is simply a Sheridan Bronc.