In a way, swimming kept Jonathan Key from drowning in a sea of despair.
Key, a senior at Nova Southeastern University, was eight years old when a coach in his hometown of Waynesville, N.C., discovered his talent in the water.
By the time he was 12, Key was beating much older kids with regularity.
“I joined my high school varsity team as a seventh-grader,” Key said. “I found that I could beat these high school guys – seniors who were two feet taller than me and twice my size. I could crush them in the pool, and it was at that point that I decided: ‘This is what I need to do.’”
There was something else Key needed to do first, however, and that was deal with severe dyslexia. He was diagnosed at age seven with the condition that is characterized by difficulty in reading fluently and with full comprehension.
Key’s parents, Barbara and Jonathan, noticed their son’s issues with reading and writing in the first grade, but it took a year before he was tested and diagnosed.
At that point, the Keys pulled their son out of public school. At his new school, there was one teacher for every three students. All of a sudden, Key flourished. Studying became fun.
“We knew,” said his father, “that given the proper instruction, he was just as smart as anybody else.”
Key went on to Carolina Day High School and excelled, both in the classroom and in the pool, where he set 11 program records, four conference marks and one state standard.
He soon earned a scholarship to NSU, but he fared poorly academically as a freshman.
“Everybody does kind of bad their first semester,” Key said. “But after it didn’t get any better the second semester, everyone panicked, including myself.”
NSU swim coach Hollie Bonewit-Cron said she wasn’t sure Key would return for his sophomore year due to his grades.
Key then met with Dr. C.A. Tolchinsky, NSU's Manager of Student-Athlete Academic Services.
“We got a handle of what his struggles were academically,” Tolchinsky said. “At that time, he disclosed to me that he had a learning disability, and he was willing to finally get some help.”
Key explained that his coach and some professors knew about his dyslexia, but he hadn’t utilized NSU’s full resources to help him until he met with Tolchiinsky.
“I [had] wanted to prove I could do it on my own,” he said.
Once he got help, Key’s career took off. As a junior, he finished in the top 10 in two Sunshine State Conference Championship events – seventh in the 200-yard breaststroke and ninth in the 400-yard individual medley.
"He's more confident now,” Bonewit-Cron said. “He walks around with a little more swagger, and it's nice to see.”
Academically, Key’s grade-point average went from a low of 1.15 to a high of 3.4 in his most recent semester.
He recently won the 2013 Wilma Rudolph Award, given by the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. The award honors athletes who overcame adversity en route to achieving academic success.
Key, a criminal justice major, is on track to graduate this spring. He recently completed an internship with the Coconut Creek Police Department and is interested in working on a tactical squad such as a SWAT team. Obviously, Key is not letting dyslexia hold him back.
“I just think about things differently than other people,” Key said. “It's just something I have to live with."