Walking around the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, you’re bound to run into U.S. Paralympic swimmer Evan Austin at some point.
You can’t miss the 14-time American record-holder and his witty antics. At 6-foot-2, he’s a self-proclaimed class clown who goes out of his way to be a goof ball.
“I’m just a simple Midwest boy who gets along fine with just about anyone,” Austin likes to joke.
“That’s just the easiest way that I can control my swim meets mentally. If I just sit there totally serious the whole time, I’m going to start getting between my ears, and that would have a negative effect on my races. If I can laugh and I can have a good time and separate myself from my race up until it’s time to get behind the blocks, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Rio 2016 will mark the second Paralympics for 23-year-old Austin, who competed in four individual events and one relay at the London 2012 Games, finishing as high as sixth place in the 100-meter breaststroke SB7 after being seeded eighth heading into the final.
The only international medals he has won in his career thus far have come at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships.
But that could change in Rio, where Austin will swim five individual events: 100-meter freestyle S8, 100-meter breaststroke SB7, 100-meter butterfly S8, 200-meter individual medley SM8 and 400-meter freestyle S8.
Born with familial spastic paraparesis, Austin has shared the same hereditary condition — which is almost like a cousin of cerebral palsy — as his mother, Nola. While his mom was not impacted until she was in her late 40s, the condition only remained dormant in Austin until age 3. As he began to grow, the muscles in his legs and back refused to grow, which shaped, changed and warped how he walked on a daily basis.
It hardly had an effect on Austin in the pool, though, a place he began visiting frequently by age 11 back home in Terre Haute, Indiana. He simply learned to drag his large frame through the water with his exceptional upper-body strength.
After an adequate Paralympic debut in London, Austin wanted to distance himself from his everyday life in Indiana, where he said there were too many daily distractions going on around him. So after several discussions with his family, he moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to make swimming the top priority in his life.
“If I was going to make a serious run at the Rio Games, I needed to take my training a little bit more seriously, so why not go to the place where that’s the focus every single day that you get up?” he said.
Austin is one of eight members of the U.S. Resident Team based in Colorado Springs who will represent the program in Rio, part of a group that also includes his domestic rival and three-time Paralympic champion Rudy Garcia-Tolson.
The other members of the resident program include: Tharon Drake, Tye Dutcher, Sophia Herzog, Elizabeth Marks, Letticia Martinez and Martha Ruether.
The full U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team roster is made up of 31 athletes, including 17 athletes with Paralympic experience who have won a combined nine gold, eight silver and 12 bronze Paralympic Games medals.
“For every one of us that’s heading down to Rio, there’s an expectation that you’re not alone, but that you have to come into practice prepared every single day,” Austin said. “You have to get to work. You can’t be that one weak link in the team when there’s so many people in your training group, which is to win a medal for this country.”
Austin plans to take the same approach in Rio as he does in Colorado Springs, keeping it light on the Aquatics Stadium’s pool deck.
“People don’t really expect it, so it can be considered a little bit of psychological warfare,” he said.
“If I can get in someone else’s mind in the way I joke around and have a good time, they may think I’m lackadaisical and that will only have a positive effect for me.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.