Colleen Young had barely turned 14 when she boarded a plane to London for the 2012 Paralympic Games, so she had every excuse to be dazzled and dizzied by it all.
Except she sort of missed that part. She doesn’t intend on missing it again.
That’s why, in the run-up to the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, every minute in the water, every stroke in training and every race matter — and perhaps especially the schedule she’ll be swimming when the IPC Swimming World Championships begin July 13 in Glasgow, Scotland.
That was, in fact, the biggest lesson she took from London.
Young had been competing in Paralympic swimming events for barely a year when she was off to her first Paralympic Games, and she confessed that “because I was so young, I didn’t really take a lot of it in.”
“I thought it was just another meet,” she said. “Looking at it now, I realize this was the meet to go to and the biggest stage I’ll ever step on in my life, and I really want to experience that.”
And some of that was driven home by, well, getting beat. In London, Young finished fifth in the S13 class in the 100-meter breaststroke — her specialty — and seventh in the 200 individual medley. Earlier in the year, she’d set American records in the breaststroke.
“I don’t want to say I was expecting to medal — but I was,” Young said. “Getting fifth opened my mind to realizing I’m not the fastest person to ever race this event. It made me really embrace the need to work harder and train harder so I can get what I want out of this.”
It seems to be paying off. In April, Young broke her first world record, winning the S13 200-meter breaststroke in 2 minutes, 51.36 seconds at the Internationale Deutsche Meisterschaft meet in Berlin.
In Glasgow, she’ll tackle six events — freestyle at 50 and 400 meters, the 200 IM and 100-meter swims in the breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. She brought home three medals from her first trip to worlds in 2013, including silvers in the breaststroke and backstroke.
But then, success in her sport came quickly.
Young was born with albinism that left her legally blind, though she said, “I still don’t know how to describe it after all these years.” With corrective lenses, her vision is 20/250 — but even sitting in the front row in school at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis, she can’t make out what’s written on the board.
Still, she took a stab at a handful of sports as a child — soccer, softball, basketball and golf, which she gave up just a few years ago.
“But having a ball coming at your face when you’re visually impaired is not the best option,” she said. “Even following a ball on the ground is difficult. In swimming, it’s you and the water and I can just focus on me. And I really like it. It’s a lot of work, swimming at this level, and I think every athlete has moments when they just want to quit — and I’ve had those, too. But it’s always been my favorite sport. I love the feeling of being in the water.”
Her vision limitations require some basic accommodations: She tracks her progress on the black line on the pool floor in each lane and keeps a mental count of her strokes. In the backstroke, she tries to find a spot on the ceiling to cue her approach to the wall.
She thrived under the watch of coach Dave McCrary of the CSP Tideriders, and at a meet in 2010, Alicia Scott — a swimming official and the mother of another 2012 U.S. Paralympian, Susan Beth Scott — suggested Young check out Paralympic swimming.
“I didn’t really think that much about it at first,” Young said. “To me it was like, ‘OK, another meet to go to — that’s cool.’ But as I saw where it could take me, I really got into it. It’s an honor, honestly, to be involved with it.”
Within a year, Young had qualified for the Parapan American Games; American records soon began to follow. Swimming meshed nicely with Young’s sense of independence, but at 17 she’s come to grasp that there’s motivation beyond the lane markers, too.
“I think about that a lot,” she said. “During practice, I’ll think, ‘What are my competitors doing now? Are they working harder than I am?’ I use that competition to fuel my work ethic.”
John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.