Six members will represent Team USA at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics
After the Olympics will come a second, perhaps even more impressive, display of the awesome range of human ability. Between Aug. 24 and Sept. 5, the world will watch the Paralympics, which will feature thousands of competitors from more than 100 countries.
Swimming is the second largest para sport, and among the 620 swimmers from around the globe who’ll be competing in 146 medal events in Tokyo, U.S. Masters Swimming is proud to call six of them members. Here, we introduce you to four USMS members who’ll be representing Team USA at the Paralympics.
(Robert Griswold, an unattached member from the Pacific LMSC, didn’t respond to interview requests. You can learn more about the sixth Team USA member who's a USMS member, Mallory Weggemann, an unattached member from the Minnesota LMSC, here. A seventh USMS member, Swim Fort Lauderdale’s Abbas Karimi, will be competing for Team Refugee and declined to be interviewed until after the Paralympics.)
Jamal Hill, Golden Road Aquatics
Jamal Hill has always been a swimmer, joining a swim team at age 6. At the time, there was no indication that anything was out of the ordinary for the young water-lover, but Hill has a hereditary neurological condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease that causes extensive neuropathy.
At age 10, “for whatever reason, it kicked in at that point and sent me into a temporary state of full-body paralysis,” he says. “I was hospitalized for a couple weeks, and when I came out, I was left with a new body,” one in which he can’t feel his lower legs and has only 30% of normal sensation in his forearms.
But he kept his condition secret from everyone around him for years and continued swimming. He competed at Hiram College in Ohio, a Division III program. It was there that he decided “I wanted to make swimming my career,” he says. But first, he’d have to move back home to Southern California and come to terms with his disability.
He was swimming when he met Wilma Wong, a mental performance coach and swim consultant who intuited that there was something more going on with Hill, 26, than he was telling her. “That’s the first time I came out of that proverbial disability closet,” he says. But with that, they shifted his focus from trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials to trying to become the best Paralympic swimmer in the world.
That shift opened up a whole new world of international competitions, and Hill has become a sports celebrity. A high-profile Speedo endorsement deal has made Hill a recognizable figure in his hometown and across the country. In Los Angeles, right near the YMCA where he learned to swim, “there’s now an 8-story tall building with my mug plastered all over the side of it with that Speedo campaign” he says.
Hill’s connection to Masters started in 2016 after he’d returned to California, when Masters meets provided him a place to race. “That gave me an avenue to pursue my dream, and I had an opportunity to network and meet people,” he says, all of which helped him get on the path to the Paralympics. Hill still competes in Masters events when he can, as these events “allow me to continue to fine tune and practice racing,” he says.
In Tokyo, he’ll be competing in the 50 freestyle and in the S9 classification and potentially the men’s 100 freestyle in the S10 classification. (Athletes with physical impairments compete in classifications ranging from one to either nine or 10 depending on the event. The higher classifications are for the least severe impairments.)
Martha Ruether, Unattached Within Niagara LMSC
Martha Ruether was born nearly four months premature and entered the world weighing a mere 1 pound, 8 ounces. “I was really small,” the now 27-year-old says. She spent more than two months in the neonatal intensive care unit after being born.
Arriving so early meant that her eyes hadn’t fully developed. She has no vision in her left eye, and in her right, “I have pretty good vision for somebody with visual impairment,” she says of her 20/400 vision rating. That means that “every single thing a normal-sighted person would be able to see at 400 feet, I would need to see at 20 feet,” she says. “Details at a distance are tough.”
But that didn’t stop her from taking part in sports as a kid. She hails from a small town south of Buffalo, New York, where there wasn’t a lot of variety in sports options for kids. “Because I’m visually impaired, my options were track and swimming. And I don’t like running,” she says.
She swam through high school and dabbled in “a bit of Paralympic stuff when I was in the 10th grade in 2010,” she recalls, but stepped back from it and focused on swimming in college at Lake Erie College in Ohio, which has a Division II program. (She would eventually transfer to SUNY Brockport to be closer to family, and she competed for that Division III program as well.)
After her freshman year, Ruether dipped her toes back into Paralympic waters and did well at a meet at the University of Minnesota (the same pool where she punched her ticket to Tokyo during the U.S. Paralympic Team swimming trials). Before she knew what had happened, she’d qualified for the World Para Swimming Championships, which set her on a globe-trotting Paralympic swimming career.
In addition to training for the Paralympics, Ruether is also completing a master’s degree in school counseling at Malone University outside Akron, Ohio, where she also assists with their swim team. “I’m kind of spinning a lot of plates,” she says, laughing. She’s already living the Masters Swimming lifestyle by rising early to fit training in before work and school and then wrapping up the day with more training and homework.
Amid all this, Ruether found that Masters Swimming gave her a welcome outlet for competition and training. “I love being able to watch people of all ages still competing,” she says, recalling a meet in Rochester at which a swimmer in her 90s competed in the 200 backstroke. “I don’t even want to do the 200 back now!” she says, laughing.
More seriously, she says, “I think Masters is an awesome opportunity for people to stay in shape and have a social circle. It’s a great opportunity for people of all ages to just get out there. It’s cool to see what the future looks like.”
Ruether will be competing in the 100 breaststroke in the SB13 classification and in the 50 freestyle in the S13 classification. (The S13 classification is for visually impaired athletes with the least severe impairments.)
Zach Shattuck, Unattached Within Colorado LMSC
Zach Shattuck was born with dwarfism, though his condition escaped detection for the first 18 months of his life and only started to become apparent when his growth rate diverged from the standard tables. Growing up with dwarfism, “you live your life at a lower altitude,” Shattuck says. “But you can do the same things as everyone else.”
As such, he grew up playing lots of sports. But swimming wasn’t really on his radar. That was until a fortuitous race at the World Dwarf Games in 2013. “They had a swimming event, and I swam there and ended up racing against this kid from Australia. He was on the Australian Paralympic team,” and his parents suggested to Shattuck’s parents that they check out Paralympic opportunities in America.
With that idea in mind, Shattuck, 25, began swimming more. When he arrived at Frostburg State University in the fall of 2014 for college, he asked the swimming coach for some pointers. But the coach took it a step further and asked Shattuck to join the team. (That coach, Justin Anderson, has since taken a coaching position with the University of Mary Washington and will be part of the coaching staff headed to Tokyo for the Paralympics.)
Shattuck thrived in his college swimming career, becoming an assistant coach and steadily getting faster. He says the delay of the Paralympics, necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, was a good thing for him as it gave him a little more time and space to prepare for the Games.
In Tokyo, Shattuck will be competing in the S6 classification in the 50 butterfly and 400 freestyle, in the SB6 in the 100 breaststroke, and in the SM6 in the 200 IM. (Athletes with physical impairments compete in classifications ranging from one to either nine or 10 depending on the event. The higher classifications are for the least severe impairments.) He says his goal for his first Paralympics is to “try to final on all of my events. With the breaststroke, which is my best event, you never know what could happen. I’m just going to go out and do the best I can and maybe I can sneak on the podium.”
Though he hasn’t trained extensively with Masters, Shattuck has gone through the Masters coaching certification process so he could become an assistant coach while he was still at Frostburg, and he ended up helping coach a Masters team there too. He says Masters swimmers have inspired him.
“When you see these middle-aged people and seniors who are getting after it and kicking your butt, that’s pretty awesome to see,” he says. “Swimming is a lifelong sport, and anyone can do it.”
Colleen Young, Unattached Within Ozark LMSC
Colleen Young is headed to Tokyo for her third appearance at the Paralympics. She made her debut at the tender age of 14 in London. “If you told me at 14 that I would be a professional swimmer going to my third Games, I probably would have laughed,” she says.
But Young, 23, came to swimming early because it was the only sport that worked with her visual impairment. Young was born with albinism, an inherited disorder that causes visual impairment and lack of melanin production. She’s legally blind, and “the way I describe it is if perfect vision is 20/20, without my glasses my left eye is 20/800, and my right one is 20/650. With corrective lens that goes down to 20/200 and 20/250. It’s still considered legally blind.” Young can see light and shapes, but details are fuzzy and she’s sensitive to light. “If it’s too bright, then it’s hard for me to see and if it’s too dark it’s hard for me to see,” she says.
That meant ball sports were out. “For me, it’s hard to follow a ball around the field,” she says. Instead, in swimming, “I can focus on myself. Obviously, I have to stay aware in the lane of where the lane rope and other people are, but I don’t have to focus on a moving object. Everything is stationary in the water,” she says. And she excelled in that environment.
To help guide herself along in the pool, Young says she tends to stay closer to the lane line. And each time she enters a new pool, she’s got to learn its peculiarities. “If I’m going to a new pool, my walls will be bad until I’ve learned the footing and how far the ‘T’ is from the wall,” she says. “There’s so many … little factors in each pool that are different.”
Young found Masters Swimming after graduating from college: “I didn’t really have a club team so in order to do meets and swim, I needed to have a membership. So I got a Masters membership.”
In Tokyo, Young will compete in the 100 backstroke and 50 freestyle in the S13 classification, the 200 IM in the SM13 classification, and the 100 breaststroke in the SB13 classification. (The S13 classification is for visually impaired athletes with the least severe impairments.) She says her strongest events are the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke, “so hopefully I can pull out something in those.”