Jean Ann Wheeler is the kind of person families name their babies after.
She may not be a household name, but in Indiana there are a lot of people who probably still talk about her to their grandchildren. She’s been gone from the Hoosier State for a couple of decades now; but while there, she made quite an impact on classmates, female athletes, 3rd grade students and their parents, sixth-grade boys she challenged, horses, gardeners and people who simply admired gardens.
She’s an underachiever turned overachiever.
She was raised prior to changes in schooling that recognized bright students with learning disabilities, prior to labels like ADHD, prior to homeschooling, and prior to Title IX provisions that made sports more inclusive for girls.
With help from adults who recognized her strong points and provided alternative opportunities to learn, she found ways to deal with – and make the most of – her learning disability and hyperactivity.
At some point she would learn she was extremely dyslexic.
“My parents had the intuition to let me be,” she says, explaining that they never got mad at her for bringing home disappointing report cards. For her 12th birthday, they gave her diving lessons at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, connected with Indiana University and swimming coach “Doc” Counsilman.
Counsilman’s post-graduate degrees in physiology and anatomy put him way ahead of his time in coaching Olympic hopefuls and medal-winners like Mark Spitz, Jean Ann explains. He saw promise in the pre-teen and channeled her energy in the pool, challenging her physically. Since Indianapolis was 85 minutes away from her home town of Shelbyville – a prohibitive distance to drive too frequently in the 1960s – the Counsilman family took Jean Ann into their home where she melded with their four children. She worked out five hours/day, attending school back in Shelbyville just one day/week. She won at nationals and was an alternate for the 1960 Olympics before she began setting world records.
Administrators in the school district “didn’t know where to put me,” she says, acknowledging that she got passing grades and graduated from high school when she probably shouldn’t have. Other students liked her and went out of their way to make Jean Ann feel she was popular. “It hurt them to see me struggle so much.”
Prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics, Jean Ann announced she didn’t want to swim anymore. She termed herself a “freak” when it came to being so strong in girls’ sports at a time when girls weren’t even competing in tennis. She was muscular, strong and lean. And she missed being home with her family and friends.
“’Doc’ Counsilman said there was nothing wrong with making a plan to quit after doing your best,” she recalls. So, after winning in 100- and 200-meter nationals and setting a new world record, she pulled a pair of scissors from her gym bag and cut her Speedo in half.
“I loved horses,” she continues. “School let me finish by attending just mornings.” She worked with a stallion every afternoon, a spirited Arabian nearby. “I learned so much!” She was small compared to most handlers, but horses sensed her compassion and motivational approach, much like responding to a horse whisperer.
“I didn’t really learn to read until I was 17,” Jean Ann admits, crediting Mrs. Counsilman. “Someone else helped me get a driver’s license.” To this day, reading is not easy for her, and memorizing anything is impossible, she confesses. Her brain just doesn’t work like that. She does better hearing instructions than reading them.
Despite her learning disability, she pursued a degree in teaching at Indiana University, even earning a master’s. She was on the board of her sorority for three years, president of her pledge class. “I should never have been a leader, but I always ended up a leader [but] I always needed someone to help me.” She made changes in how things were done in order to adapt to the roles in which she found herself.
“When God created minds, I would have been a scout who looked for all the problems – 17 things at once – and fixed them," she says of her ability to assess and conquer, doing many things at once. "My mind jumps around.”
After her first year of teaching third grade, she was the most-requested teacher by parents (70) of students moving up from second grade. She approached teaching differently – like teaching math with rhythm – and her style produced incredible results. She instilled a love for learning in eight-year-olds that influenced their studies in higher grades.
Despite her own difficulties with reading and spelling, she taught children to love both. They sang their words and carried around a sheet of paper in their pockets with eight extra spelling words each week – "extremely hard, high-school-level words," Jean Ann stressed, saying they oftentimes came from the news. "Make them a game, and I will also try to learn them." She admits she never had one student as bad a speller as she was.
She paired good students with slower students and initiated ways for them to challenge each other by having them seek out more and more difficult words outside of class. Classroom morale was exceptional because Jean Ann paired up kids who might not socialize with one another otherwise, and the effects spilled over to the lunchroom and the playground.
While teachers know the playground can be a good place for children to expend their energy, Jean Ann had to deal with an abundance of her own energy. She took up running over the lunch hour. That led to challenging dozens of sixth-grade boys to run with her. During inclement weather they dribbled basketballs and shot hoops, helping the boys to improve their agility and skill, much to the delight of the seventh-grade basketball coach.
Knowing from experience how difficult it was for her to learn to read, she helped parents gain proficiency as well and gave them practice interviewing and filling out job applications. Over a four-year period, she worked with a total of 60 adults on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, teaching them some of the skills they needed in order to be gainfully employed. “Some of them named their babies after me,” she adds with a bit of a laugh.
Like swimming, Jean Ann ended a successful career as a teacher when school funding became dependent on scores and teachers were told to falsify the grades they handed out, something she refused to do. She turned to gardening for friends, which evolved into a landscaping business with six employees. It was an avenue for her creativity and a way for her teenage kids to be employed.
Again, she did it her way, using the same compassion she’d shown before, her finely tuned ear to hear what people liked and wanted, and her energy and creativity to landscape million-dollar homes in breath-taking ways.
“Dirt is extremely forgiving,” she explains. Thirty years ago she was into moonscaping using sensors that detected cars moving along dark, estate-like driveways three-quarters of a mile long, illuminating 30-second glimpses of fields of a thousand daffodils her crew had planted, for instance. Each client’s garden carried a sculpted bunny rabbit, her signature.
Gardening was like swimming and working with horses, she found. Each undertaking had its rewards.
For awhile she raised money for the American Cancer Society and excelled at that too, bringing in large gifts. Then she got into sales – first copy machines and later equipment needed for neurosurgery – meeting and exceeding goals, finding she could sell but she couldn’t run a cash register. She could give presentations to neurosurgeons but she couldn’t fill out an expense report. She learned coping skills and excelled at whatever she chose to do. “I love to cook and entertain, but I can’t follow a recipe,” she says, adding that people do enjoy coming to her house to eat.
When her children were in college, one encouraged her to relocate to Colorado. And in 1993 she did. After 22 years of "selling surgeries," working with surgeons and operating-room personnel using specific medical equipment, her livelihood was interrupted by dealing with Stage 4 breast cancer two years later, but she simply dealt with that the way she did everything else.
"Swimming teaches you to work hard consistently."
She took to flipping homes after she’d remodeled them, moved to Evergreen, and joined Evergreen Newcomers and Neighbors where she pumped energy into planning monthly social events for the group. And in 2009 she remarried, having met her husband – Rich Leibundgut – on Match.com.
Her talents are many, her energy boundless. She moves with grace from one project to another like swimming laps in a pool. She's not looking to set new world records or earning medals (she's no longer a swimmer) but she barely lets her suit dry before undertaking a new way to challenge herself – often by helping others. Her latest endeavor is training her dog to work with cancer patients.
“I’ve always lived my life – loved my life – differently.”
In telling her story, Jean Ann wants parents of children with learning disabilities to be encouraged about identifying and channeling the assets those children do have. She’s grateful for the many opportunities she’s been given to develop skills to overcome her own disability.