I'm A Record-Breaking Paralympian Swimmer, And This Is How I Got Here

Growing up, I was never one of those kids who dreamed about competing in the Olympics. I began swimming rather reluctantly, and when I finally realized I had some talent in the water, I set my focus on goals that were a little closer to home — like breaking high school records and swimming in college. Olympic trials? Competing for the United States? It just wasn't on my radar. Now, at 24, I’m a professional athlete and proud member of Team USA, training full-time for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games — and in early July, I even set a world record. So. How did I get from point A to point B?

In January 2011, I was a freshman at Georgetown University. As a Division I swimmer and pre-med student, I never expected to be spending my spring semester in a rehab hospital. While trying to open my dorm room window one night, I slipped and fell five stories to the ground.

Life as I knew it would never be the same. The fall left me with countless broken bones, a shattered L2 vertebrae, and a damaged spinal cord. I woke up in the trauma center with almost no movement or feeling below my waist. After three surgeries and six months of rigorous rehab, I relearned how to walk, though I was left with permanent weakness in my legs.

Like many people, I was initially unwilling to accept my spinal cord injury as a "permanent disability." For a while, I believed I would eventually recover completely. My passion for swimming never ceased during my recovery, and I was eager to get back in the water as soon as possible.

As fate would have it, just as I was questioning whether I could go on competing in a sport that just constantly reminded me of how I’d never be as fast as before my injury, I discovered Paralympic swimming.

When I began racing again, my times were drastically slower than before, but I was confident they would drop exponentially as I continued training. Before my injury, I spent hours during practice gazing up at the record board that looms over the Georgetown University pool, knowing that the school records were within my reach, and that by my senior year, I’d surely get my name up on that board. I had set this same goal in high school, and sure enough, I left my mark on the record board by the time I left for college. Accepting that my legs were now permanently weakened and that I’d never be within reach of school records or even competitive Division 1 times was a tough pill to swallow. What would motivate me, now that my main goal was unrealistic?

As fate would have it, just as I was questioning whether I could go on competing in a sport that just constantly reminded me of how I’d never be as fast as before my injury, I discovered Paralympic swimming. Before my accident, I had never even heard of the Paralympics. In case you haven’t either, the Paralympic Games are just like the Olympic Games, but all participants have a permanent physical disability. They are held every two years, in the same facilities as the Olympics, and the competitors train every bit as hard as their able-bodied counterparts.

Because of the weakness in my legs, I learned I was eligible for Paralympic swimming. I soon became enamored of the possibility of competing against other athletes with disabilities. I finished out my career at Georgetown as a member of the swim team, but was never very competitive against other collegiate swimmers. In the Paralympics, however, athletes are classified based on the severity of their disability. For swimming, there are 10 categories for physically impaired athletes: S1 is the most severe impairment, while S10 is the least. I compete in the S9 category, and most of my competitors are either above-knee or below-elbow amputees.

After attending my first Paralympic meet in 2012, I was hooked. The exhausting process of learning to walk again strengthened my inner fortitude and caused me to work harder than ever in the pool. The first thing I did upon receiving my classification was check out the record book — and this time, it wasn’t just school records, but American records. And they were most certainly within my reach.

My initial goals had to be scrapped, but these new standards were not only a realistic goal I could work towards, but were even more prestigious, which fueled my fire even more. This realization quickly overshadowed my lingering disappointment, and taught me that not all unfilled goals are "failures" — in fact, they can often lead to new directions that are even more exciting than we ever imagined.

With each new turn of this journey, I became more and more consumed with the possibility of representing the United States at the Paralympic Games, and subsequently, more aware and in touch with my own inner strength. As a scrawny age group swimmer, I simply didn’t know this determination was within me.

My traumatic accident allowed me to access an enormous trove of work ethic and fortitude. Over the past four years, I’ve used this to steadily work my way up to the top of the world rankings in sprint freestyle events.

Now, I often have to pinch myself to remind myself that the life I’m living isn’t a dream. Waking up before the sun to push my body to its absolute limit every single day may sound like a nightmare to some, but for me, it’s a privilege. I am able to dedicate myself 100 percent — every minute of every day — to the goal of performing at my absolute peak. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the support from my coaches, teammates, family, and friends that allows me to pursue this dream.

I’ve stood on a podium in Scotland and listened to how medalists are announced first by their country — “Representing the United States!” — then by their name. I’ve casually chatted with Olympic legends in the dining hall at the Olympic Training Center. I even got a sneak peek at this year’s venues in Rio. Five years ago, from my hospital bed, I never would have imaged I’d be here. But I couldn’t be more grateful for where this journey has led me, or more excited for Rio. The best is yet to come.

The 2016 Paralympics in Rio will take place between September 7 and September 18.

Images: Courtesy of Michelle Konkoly (1)