Hannah Aspden, 15, will compete in front of a hometown crowd at the Arena Pro Swim Series and the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming.
Most of last year was terrific for swimmer Hannah Aspden.
The teenager from Raleigh, North Carolina, went to her first IPC Swimming World Championships in July and came home from Scotland with a silver medal in the 4x100-meter and three fourth-place finishes.
She appeared primed for a strong 2016 and a shot at making the U.S. Paralympic team for Rio de Janeiro.
That was until she became sick just before Thanksgiving.
It started with a respiratory virus and eventually included a host of problems, including dizziness, a rapid heart rate and high blood pressure, poor circulation and breathing issues.
Just like that, the plan for 2016 had to change. The idea of getting a running start to the year and peaking for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials took a back seat to simply getting healthy.
Aspden said doctors eventually diagnosed her problem as dysautonomia, a malfunctioning of her autonomous nervous system.
“It’s a really internal thing, but it causes a wide variety of kind of strange symptoms,” says Aspden, 15, a sophomore at Leesville Road High School. “They’ve been getting better gradually and I’m on a lot of medications that control it, but it’s one of those things you have to be patient and wait it out. But it’s temporary, so that’s good.”
Aspden did some swimming on her own until recent weeks, when she finally was able to feel strong and healthy enough to join her regular training group at workouts in the North Carolina State pool.
In the early months of 2016 she knew her health should be her primary focus and that things were out of her control, but she couldn’t help thinking that maybe she’d miss her opportunity to go to Rio this year.
“It definitely took a mental toll, and I did have my doubts,” she said.
So when she finally went to her first competition of 2016 the first weekend of May at the Cincinnati Para-Swimming Open, she had no idea what to expect. Her fears were that she would be far slower than she would have been at this point.
Instead, she swam well, winning the 50 free, 100 free and 200 backstroke in her class, while finishing second in the 400 free. Her time of 1 minute, 7 seconds in the 100 free was just off her 1:05 from last summer’s world championships. She said she was “pleasantly surprised.”
“All things considered, I thought that was pretty close,” she said. “So I’m very happy with it.”
A Local Opportunity
Now Aspden will be back in the pool to compete at the Arena Pro Swim Series from May 12-15 at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center in Charlotte.
For Aspden — who was born without a left leg and competes in the S9, SB8 and SM9 classifications for athletes missing or with severe weakness in one leg — she now has a baseline to gauge her improvement from her first competition of the year. She plans to swim the 50 and 100 free and 50 and 100 backstroke events.
Just as in Cincinnati, she’s not going in with great expectations. She simply wants to have fun and see her progress. But she’s much more optimistic now about how her year will unfold and her chances of making the Paralympic team.
“It’s definitely reassuring,” she said. “It kind of puts the worries at ease now. I’m excited to see what the next few weeks have in store, and I’m excited to continue my training.”
She’s also eager to compete in the pool at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, where she’s never dipped a toe. The same pool will be the site for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials that begin June 30, so this will give her a chance to get a feel for conditions.
“I’ve heard it’s a great pool and I’m excited to stay close to home,” said Aspden, who will turn 16 on June 11.
She believes if she continues to make progress she can be in contention to make the team, especially in her best events, the 100 and 400 freestyles and 100 backstroke.
She knows, too, that she’ll have a rooting section at the trials.
“Probably, it’s so local,” she said. “It’ll be exciting. It might be a little bit overwhelming, but I really appreciate the support.”
This weekend’s event in Charlotte will be a second tune-up as she approaches the trials, where she has a chance to fulfill a longtime goal to swim in the Paralympic Games.
“I’m (ranked) fourth in the world right now in the 100 backstroke, so I’m feeling OK about it,” she said. “Of course there are some nerves, but if I can get back to where I was, back to that time (before her illness), I think I’ve got a pretty good shot. … It will be good to see how it goes this weekend, to see how I move on from there.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.