For Arlington Heights native Kelsey Ibach, the trickiest part of scuba diving might be getting dressed.
"Wet suits are hard enough to get on normally," says Ibach, 27, who is paralyzed below the waist and needs a team to get in and out of the skintight gear. As a mentor for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Caring for Kids program, which provides adaptive sport and recreation programs for children ages 7 through 17 with physical impairments, Ibach earned her scuba diver certification last month and helped kids with disabilities explore the underwater world off the island of Key Largo, Florida.
But first, she had to put her arms around a diving instructor.
"We'd hug, and then this tag team pulled these layers on me," Ibach says.
People with spinal cord injuries also get cold easily. So even in the 88-degree water, Ibach needed to slip into four layers of protective outfits before every dive.
"The biggest challenge was keeping her core warm," says Dan Howard, who, with his wife, Cindy, runs DJ's Scuba Locker in Brookfield and oversaw the dives for this trip. "Kelsey's a trouper. She's fantastic."
Since she was a young girl, Ibach, a graduate of Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, has been at home in the water.
"I would teach swim lessons in the summer," says Ibach, who also worked as an aquatics instructor and lifeguard at Discovery Day Camp in Lincolnshire.
A passenger in a car that crashed Sept. 13, 2014, in Chicago, Ibach went to the hospital with a collapsed lung, seven broken ribs and five broken vertebrae, which paralyzed her from the waist down, leading to months of therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
"I met Kelsey when she was an inpatient at RIC. When she was here in therapy, she did a lot of hydrotherapy," says Ashley Gruenwald, who oversees the Caring for Kids program. "Kelsey was swimming independently from Day One."
Caring For Kids started the scuba trips four years ago.
"In rehab, I became really good friends with another girl in her 20s who became paralyzed by a drunk driver," Ibach says.
That woman was a mentor for last summer's scuba trip. This year, Gruenwald turned to Ibach.
"She was the first one who came to mind," Gruenwald says. "We always get a good response when we get a positive mentor who they can relate to."
With strong family support from her parents, Bob and Vera; her brother, Kevin; and a host of friends, Ibach says she works at staying positive. She treats the date of her injury as a second birthday because she gives thanks she survived.
"We call it my 'lifeday,'" she says.
To get certified for scuba diving, Ibach took online classes, did work in the classroom and pool, dived in open water and completed the same skills as able-bodied divers.
"I did the skill I hate (removing water from her mask) and right after that, I saw a shark, two green moray eels, a huge lobster and a stingray, and that was my reward," she says.
The three young divers she mentored, aged 11 through 17, face many of the same obstacles as Ibach.
"We make them do everything everybody else has to do, and then we work on adapting equipment," says Howard, who also runs trips for disabled veterans.
"When you are paralyzed, your legs want to float, so you can imagine that's not good when you're trying to scuba," says Ibach, who credits the dive team with finding the right pocket weights to keep her balanced and tying her legs together. She wore webbed gloves to help propel herself. While she can't move her legs, a set of pink fins helped her glide through the water, especially because she has some control over her hips.
"If you move your hips a little, it's almost like mermaid swimming," Ibach says. "We got to see all sorts of animals, such as sharks and jellyfish, sea turtles, lobsters, eels, stingrays. It was really cool to feel weightless, like a real-life mermaid."
A motto of Caring for Kids is "Advancing Ability with Every Adventure," Gruenwald says of the program that helps kids participate in adaptive sports from softball and basketball to rock climbing and archery. "You name it, we try to do it."
But the program also builds confidence and lets kid see an adult who is active and successful, Gruenwald says.
Ibach, who lives in a Chicago high-rise with her service dog, Bailey, works full time with the global marketing firm InnerWorkings and has a busy social life.
She recently took Bailey, a golden retriever trained to close cabinets, fetch items and operate light switches, to his first Cubs game. Ibach also has driven to Missouri several times to hang with her old college friends, flew to Florida for a vacation with family, organized a friend's bachelorette party in Austin, Texas, and will go surfing in Hawaii this winter.
"She did more than just mentor them in scuba," Gruenwald says of Ibach's work with the kids. "She helped them relate to life experiences."
One of her young divers is about to get his driver's license, and Ibach says she explained the control options and made him feel less anxious about hitting the road. She also helped him figure out how to use a shower on the dive trip that wasn't like his at home.
"I was in the same boat," Ibach says, figuratively and literally. "Not everything is going to be perfect. Not all the bathrooms are exactly what you'd want them to be, so I come up with a lot of improvisations."
Ibach says the kids sometimes were mentors for her.
"What's crazy is that I never told them, but they were motivation for me," Ibach says. "I was seeing the youngest one of the trip killing it with flying colors. They were fearless."