Paralympians Take to The Pool

Paralympians Take to the Pool

Four years ago, legally-blind swimmer McClain Hermes of Georgia wrote “Rio 2016” at the top of her goal sheet. Having earned the coveted USA swim cap at the 2016 Paralympic Games, she has shifted her sights to “Tokyo 2020,” and this past weekend she joined about 40 other parathletes at the Augusta Aquatic Center to pursue that target.

The occasion was the sixth annual Fred Lamback Disability Swim Meet, October 21-22, 2017, where swimmers with physical and mental disabilities gathered seeking personal bests and national records in an event hosted by the Aiken-Augusta Swim League (ASL). Joining 17-year-old Hermes in the pool was Curtis Lovejoy, himself a veteran of five Paralympic Games and holder of multiple gold medals. Lovejoy, who became a paraplegic at the age of 29, “finds serenity” in swimming, and now serves as a passionate advocate and coach for other disabled swimmers.

Swimmers came from as far away as Vermont and Illinois to attend “The Fred” as it is known, one of only a handful of swim meets available specifically for impaired athletes and the only one in the southeast US. Jason Basini of New York, who set new American records in the 50-yard and 100-yard breaststroke and 50-yard butterfly, was enthusiastic in his praise for the meet. “It was definitely worth coming here!” Another American record was set by Harper Scott of Atlanta in the 100-yard individual medley as she continues to chase her Paralympic dream.

Local ASL swimmers Avery Hardy and Owen McNear competed as well. Hardy, who has limited use of her left arm and leg, has embraced the motto “I will try.” She initially began competitive swimming to join her sister but quickly discovered it was fun to “learn new skills and meet new people.” This was McNear’s second Fred meet, and though he usually competes with able-bodied swimmers, he noted, “It is great for people with disabilities to swim together sometimes,” a sentiment echoed by Makayla Nietzel of Illinois. Hardy agreed. “(It) is hard competing against able-bodied people and always coming in last. At this meet, everyone has a disability!”

A two-day developmental clinic run by U.S. Paralympic coaches prior to the meet was attended by 11 budding Paralympians. A highlight of the camp was a discussion led by Hermes in which she encouraged the swimmers to set clear goals, work hard, and find balance. Asked about her favorite memory from the Paralympic Games, Hermes readily answered, “The coolest part was walking through the tunnel and hearing the chant begin...U-S-A! U-S-A! There’s nothing like it.” In a lighthearted vein, she also told tales of prosthetic eyes and crashing into walls. “Blind people have funny stories,” she laughed.

"Hosting this meet is important to ASL,” said Heidi Estroff, Meet Director and ASL board member. “We are all inspired by these athletes and honored to have them, and we hope to expand participation in the future by reaching out to swimmers in Athletes Without Limits and Special Olympics.”

The Fred was established by ASL in 2012 in honor of Fred Lamback, a long-time Augusta resident who coaches disabled swimmers throughout Georgia. ASL members, including adult administrators and over 30 swimmers, conducted the meet, which was supported through generous donations from the Augusta Sports Council, Georgia Swimming, Bridgestone, Barberito’s, the John Meadows family, and Augusta Swim Supply.