Chama the Charmer - April 2019 Athlete of the Month

Debbie Klecan,  64, Edgewood, New Mexico

Debbie Klecan is a multi-talented person - masters swimmer, photographer, illustrator, art teacher and expert dog trainer. Her best attribute, however, is how she has met extreme physical challenges brought on by a horrific car accident 18 years ago with a smile and more determination to live life to the fullest.

“I’m a different swimmer after the accident - I have metal in every joint below the waist including hip and knee replacements. I’m not going to break any records,” she says. “My main swimming goals are to stay out of a wheelchair.”

Debbie, whose disability forced her to retire as a cancer researcher at the University of New Mexico (UNM), barely made it into the 2019 National Senior Games presented by Humana. Her knee flared up the week before her qualifying swim at the 2018 New Mexico Senior Olympics. “It was heart breaking to train so hard and have that happen. It could have hit me a week after, but nooo, Murphy’s Law went into effect,” she says with a laugh. She hobbled on crutches to get to the pool and managed to complete the 50-yard freestyle on the last day to qualify for The Games in June.

But this story is really about a girl and her dog, a nine-year-old pure-bred Australian Cattle Dog named Chama. “All our dogs have been named after western towns, and Chama is the town in northern New Mexico where we decided to adopt her,” she explains. Despite the fact that the puppy was deaf, they took a chance on her. “She is so smart and sweet, the best dog we’ve ever had.”

Debbie trained Chama well, and she serves as her model. Chama also serves as a live model for an “Illustrating Cats and Dogs” class Debbie teaches at UNM Continuing Education. “From day one she knew how to model. Chama can hold a pose for up to two minutes because she’s very focused and not distracted by sound.”

Chama has been the subject for several themed photo series Debbie has posted on social media - so many, in fact, that Chama now has her own Instagram account. In 2018, Debbie and her High Point Sports and Wellness’ masters swim club teammates were so excited about National Senior Games coming to Albuquerque that she produced a series of sport-related pooch poses that she posted on the New Mexico Senior Olympics Facebook page. Some made their way to the National Senior Games page, and Chama now has her own Chamadogmodel Instagram page. The whimsical series was a big hit with many likes, shares, and viral successes. Chama soon became recognized at several of the state games venues and has become an unofficial mascot for her swim team.

“This was so much fun! Many were done in my studio, but some were done at the actual sport venue,” she says. “Several athletes helped educate me as to how to set up the photo shoots. I’ve learned so much about the different sports.”

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