BALTIMORE – Ian Silverman readily admits that about a year ago his understanding of the Paralympic Games was pretty limited.
Silverman was training with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club — yes, the same club Michael Phelps called home — and had his sights set on the same things as his buddies who trained there. He wanted to compete with the top high school swimmers. He wanted to make the Junior National cut.
Then along came Brian Loeffler, a longtime swimming coach at Loyola University Maryland and coach of a couple of Paralympic swimmers. Loeffler’s sister was a school guidance counselor who knew of Silverman, and she knew that he was a swimmer who happened to have cerebral palsy. Loeffler contacted Silverman, his family and his NBAC coach, Erik Posegay, and explained the Paralympic program to them.
“Brian emailed me about the Paralympics, and at first I was a little bit confused,” said Silverman, a high school junior who will turn 17 in June. “I don’t really look at what I have as a disability. I didn’t really know much about it, and I didn’t understand how competitive it would be.”
The more he listened, however, the more intrigued he became. And soon, he found himself getting classified within the Paralympic ranks — he competes in the S10 class — and not long after that, in June 2012, he was in Bismarck, N.D. competing at the U.S. Paralympic Trials - Swimming, where he wound up earning a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team that competed in London.
At the Paralympic Games, he entered seven events, including two relays, and came home with a gold medal in the men’s 400 meter free. He now realizes how intensely competitive the Paralympic Games are, since he swam season-best times in all of his events and medaled in one. He qualified for the final in the 100 fly by a scant .03 of a second.
“I figured it wasn’t going to be easy,” Posegay said. “Any event that is international is going to be competitive. And I knew Ian was going to be competing against men in the 20s, who were experienced swimmers.
“Now we all have a better understanding of it all. It really opened all of our eyes.”
Earlier this month, Silverman competed in the U.S. Paralympics Spring Swimming Nationals (2013 Can-Am meet) and posted two world records. He won the 1,500 in a time of 16:24.63, which broke a 33-year-old world mark, and also claimed the world record in the 800 (8:35.69). Because the longest distance swimming race in the Paralympic Games is 400 meters, Silverman plans on competing in several sprints when the next Paralympic Games are held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
First, however, he has a busy spring and summer ahead of him. His time in the 400 from London last fall qualified him for the U.S. Junior National cut, and he also qualified in the mile race. He will join his NBAC teammates to compete in the Charlotte UltraSwim May 9-12 and then will spend a few weeks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. From there, he will travel to California for the Arena Grand Prix at Santa Clara.
The 2013 Speedo Junior National Championships are set for Aug. 5-9 in Irvine, Calif., and then Silverman will fly to Montreal to compete in the IPC 2013 World Swimming Championships Aug. 11-17.
Competing in the Paralympic ranks have opened up a whole new world not only for Silverman, but also for his family, coaches and friends.
“I was really surprised,” Silverman said after a recent three-and-a-half hour, 9,200-yard Saturday morning practice at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Club. “The stands in London were filled every night. The atmosphere was amazing. Staying in the Olympic Village … the Closing Ceremony was incredible. … I met a lot of people from all around the world. I know it sounds cliché but it’s really true. I keep in touch now with friends from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.”
Posegay did not travel to London, although he mapped out Silverman’s Paralympic workouts, and he found himself glued to his computer at home to watch Silverman race.
“I was screaming when I was watching him in the 400,” Posegay said. “It was so exciting when he made his move at the 250.”
Winning the 400 also was special to Silverman because it helped him honor his best friend and swimming teammate, Alec Cosgerea, who died in a car accident just a few weeks before the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Silverman knew it would be an emotional race, since he was dedicating it to Alec. But he also knew it wasn’t going to be an easy race physically. It was an especially tough field, with defending Paralympic gold medalist Andre Brasil, Robert Welbourn, the 2008 silver medalist, and 19-time Paralympic medalist Benoit Huot.
Not only did Silverman best the experienced field, but he also posted a Paralympic record, clocking in a 4:04.91.
When he first touched the wall, he shouted and pumped his fists in celebration. Then he was reduced to tears as his mind turned to his lost friend. He was fighting back tears on the medal stand as well.
“I knew he was watching over me,” Silverman said that day. “I just hope I made him proud.”
Shortly after he returned to Baltimore, his high school, McDonogh School, surprised him with a parade in his honor. Alec’s brother, Will, planned the event.
Silverman also was feted with a visit to the White House, where he got to meet President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as well as U.S. Olympic and Paralympic stars. Among those he got to meet was Leo Manzano, a track and field silver medalist in the 1,500.
“I love how he always stays back and then sprints ahead,” Silverman said of Manzano, who has a seemingly similar plan of attack when it comes to competing.
Silverman has also gotten involved in programs such as Athletes Serving Athletes, a Baltimore-based organization that helps young athletes with disabilities experience running and triathlon events.
None of this would have been possible had he not learned about the Paralympic Movement, which is something about which Silverman wants to educate more people. He also wants to work with young kids from local hospitals and get them involved in swimming.
On first look at Silverman, it would be almost impossible to know how much he has been through in terms of surgeries and medical treatments. Aside from being 6-foot-2, he looks like an average teenage boy. But he has suffered from bilateral spasticity and has required serial casting and Botox injections to maintain the muscle length. He has been in full leg casts for several months at a time, and because he walks on his toes, he would often suffer from falling forward.
“Ian had a lot of visits to the ER,” said his mother, Dawn. “He would fall a lot on land. Swimming turned out to be his safe place.”
He started swimming in part because of a friend but also because he connected with a local swim coach at a local YMCA who would lower him in the pool as a youngster and got him hooked on the sport. It was part physical therapy and part pure love of the sport.
“It was a perfect match,” Dawn Silverman said. “He really grew to love the sport.”
By the time he was 9, he joined NBAC. These days, if he is out of the water for a couple of days, he is not happy. Once he and a friend from NBAC were on vacation in Hilton Head, S.C. They wanted to swim for a bit but had trouble finding lap pools. They wound up driving about an hour to Savannah, Ga., just to find one.
The only real swimming challenges for Silverman in the pool are flip turns and the breaststroke, and there are some dry land exercises, mainly sustained running, that can be problematic. Otherwise, he fits right in.
“In fact,” Posegay said, “he’s probably one of our best freestyle kickers.”
Silverman has also earned a very coveted spot on the wall at Meadowbrook. Of course, Phelps is pictured there, as are other Olympians such as Beth Botsford, Anita Nall and Katie Hoff.
“In a million years, I never imagined Ian being on the wall at NBAC,” Dawn Silverman said. “But Bob Bowman (Phelps’ coach) has been so super supportive. He told us, ‘Ian’s a gold medalist. He should be up there.’ I was just so moved by that.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for USParalympics.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.