Cortney Jordan used to finish last.
Every time, no matter how hard she tried, she touched the wall far behind her competitors.
“I only swam with able-bodied athletes so I was always last,” said Jordan, who was born with cerebral palsy, a permanent condition that affects mobility.
“Swimming is about being better than yourself,” she said. “But to have no one to be fairly compared to when you’re a kid, it is exhausting. It’s exhausting to always be the last one to finish a race even when you swam better than you did before.”
Enter the Paralympic Movement.
When she was 14, U.S. Paralympic swimmer Michael DeMarco and his wife Karen noticed Jordan at a local swim meet. “They told me I should think about the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships,” she said.
Jordan signed-up for the meet in San Antonio.
She went. She swam.
And in just minutes, she was no longer last.
“I swam the 400 free and was ranked second in the world with my time,” said Jordan, now 22. “I made my first ever world team, to swim for the United States against people from all over the world who are like me, which was a dream come true.”
The Paralympic Movement is where Jordan belonged.
“To finally have that opportunity to race people who are just like me, people who I can race against fairly, it brought me so much joy,” she said. “It was so much fun.”
The fun has not stopped for Jordan.
Now a two-time U.S. Paralympian with medals from both the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Paralympic Games, the Henderson, Nev., native recently competed at her fourth world championship. And she was far from last.
After serving as the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in Montreal, Canada, Jordan won five medals in her S7 classification: three gold medals (50, 100 and 400 meter freestyle), one silver medal (100m backstroke) and one bronze medal (200m individual medley). She also medaled with Team USA in the 4x100 freestyle relay.
Cortney Jordan was the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony of the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in Montreal, Canada.
“My 400 free was my first race,” she said. “It was super exciting because about an hour and a half before, I was the flag bearer. I came super early, I warmed-up, I carried the flag, handed it back and ran away to get ready for the race. It was hectic.”
She won the gold medal, marking her first international title since Beijing.
“It has been five years since I heard the national anthem play,” Jordan said. “It had been too long.”
London, although a four-medal meet for Jordan, had been a bit of a disappointment.
“It was so great to be back on top after London,” she said. “In Beijing, I went there to medal in anything, and I was shocked when I finished first. I wasn’t expecting to win but since then, I’ve had an expectation that I can win. It was hard for me to be at that top level. I had some great competitors. Watching them compete and watching them win gold medals, I had more motivation to continue and to represent my country well. I knew that if I just trained hard enough, I would get back to the top someday, and that someday came in Montreal.”
The day she returned from London, Jordan was not thinking about the world championships. Instead, she was thinking about her senior season at Cal Lutheran University, where she was the captain of the swim team.
“As soon as I got back from the Paralympics, I drove to California to begin training with my team,” Jordan said. “I wanted to get into the water with them as soon as I could. I knew it would be my last chance to experience that atmosphere so I wanted as much time with my team as possible.”
The season came. The season went.
Jordan did not win a national championship but her impact was much greater.
In 2013, she became the first Paralympic athlete nominated for NCAA Woman of the Year, an award created in 1991 that recognizes not only the athletic achievements of outstanding young women, but also their academic achievements, community service and leadership. Jordan finished in the Top 30.
“I’m hoping that my nomination will raise awareness of the Paralympics,” she said. “Hopefully, people will see that I’m a nominee for the NCAA Woman of the Year and that I’m also a Paralympian.”
More so than medals, awareness has become Jordan’s mission. She wants everyone to have the chance she waited 14 years to receive.
“I want everyone to have that opportunity to race,” Jordan said. “I’m adamant about letting people know about it.”
Although she is an aspiring elementary school teacher, Jordan is no doubt an advocate for the Paralympic Movement.
“The most important thing for the Paralympic Movement right now is letting people know that this opportunity is here,” she said. “People with disabilities don’t have to be last in everything. Paralympic sport is an option that can change their lives and how they feel about themselves but they have to know its here.”
Jordan knows the impact it can have.
“Acceptance and confidence,” she said. “For me personally, that is the greatest benefit in being involved with the Paralympic Movement. I did have times when I was down on myself because of my disability. I had a hard time coming to terms with it. When I was younger, I wanted to be normal. I just wanted to be average like everyone else. I’m happy being me now.”
She came to Paralympic sport.
And she conquered the world.
“Paralympics made me cherish my role and appreciate my disability,” Jordan said. “God has a plan for me. I’m disabled for a reason. Maybe being in the Paralympics isn’t that reason. Maybe the reason why is because it gives me the opportunity to help others. If I can do this, and I can help others, and help them through their struggles with a disability, I’m OK with it. I want to show others what is possible.”
Jordan recently moved to Baltimore, Md., to live with teammate Jessica Long, who won eight medals in nine events at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Her sights remain firmly on Rio.
“There is nothing like being in the Paralympics so I want to swim as long as I can,” she said.
After that, her sights are on expanding her sport.
“I also want others to have the opportunity to experience the same opportunities that I have been so fortunate to have,” she said. “If I could coach future Paralympic athletes, or even able-bodied athletes, that would be great. I want to help people. That is what makes me happy. Anyway I can help someone live a better life, I am happy to do that.”
No doubt, her impression will last.