Zach Shattuck looks to claim his first world title in Mexico City.
When a devastating earthquake hit Mexico City in September, it didn’t just disrupt the city.
It also forced the postponement of the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships, just one week before from the competition which was originally scheduled for Sept. 30-Oct. 6, and affected the training and plans for a young United States squad that had high hopes.
With worlds rescheduled for Dec. 2-7 in Mexico City, it’s game on for Team USA, a squad of 12 men and 10 women that includes several younger swimmers full of talent. While the team features 13 Paralympians (including two returning world champions from 2015), it is also highlighted by nine swimmers who have not competed in the Paralympic Games but who have already proven themselves in major competitions this season.
Newcomer Aspen Shelton of Texas, just 16, set U.S., Pan-Am and world records in the S13 200-meter backstroke at the final stop of the World Para Swimming World Series in Berlin.
Leanne Smith, 29, of Massachusetts, has been swimming for less than five years, but set U.S., Pan-Am and world records in the S4 50 butterfly at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming World Championships Trials.
And Zach Shattuck, 21, a senior at Frostburg State University in Maryland, recorded five wins in the SB6 classification at the 2017 World Series stop in Indianapolis in June.
Shelton, who is visually impaired, began swimming just this year and kept her spirits high after worlds were postponed.
“When it was postponed, I was just hoping the people down in Mexico were OK,” she said. “Worlds is just a competition, but this was about their lives, and I was hoping they were OK.”
Shattuck, who has hypochondroplasia, a type of short-limbed dwarfism, had to change his training schedule after the postponement. But fortunately one of his college teammates, 18-year-old freshman Connor Gioffreda, who has another type of dwarfism known as achondroplasia, is also going to worlds and the two were able to stay in shape together.
“Connor and I were training at school,” Shattuck said, “and we had to push our schedule back a bit and reassess where we were at, but all it really meant was pushing everything back a month or so. We had no meets scheduled, so we were mostly just getting in the pool and training.”
Smith, a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is excited for the competition. She started swimming as therapy for dystonia, a rare neurological disorder which is the third-most common movement disorder behind essential tremors and Parkinson's disease.
“I’m excited and nervous,” she said. “I had two solid years of swimming and then I had a series of seizures that put me in a tailspin. It took me six months to get back into the pool and learn how to swim again.”
Smith admitted she can feel frustrated when her disease goes through its various progressions, which makes her world record that much more special.
“It’s definitely very surreal, but rewarding when you push at it and grind at it all day long to go to a meet, and then it pays off,” she said.
“I was competitive in sports growing up, and swimming re-lit that flame for me. If you told me when I started that I would be in this position of living at the Olympic Training Center and making a worlds team, traveling all around the world to different competitions, and especially to be a world-record holder, I’d have thought you were crazy.”
Shelton, who started competing when she was 9, qualified for able-bodied swimming sectionals in Texas before deciding to compete in Para events this year.
“The thing I’m looking forward to most is representing my country,” Shelton said. “It is absolutely amazing. I always wanted to represent my country and have an opportunity to do something at worlds, so this is absolutely amazing.”
Shelton said that her favorite thing about swimming is the race against the clock.
“The clock’s not going to judge me on my disability,” she said.
Shattuck has only been swimming competitively for about three years and got into it only after he spoke with Frostburg State Head Coach Justin Anderson. As a sophomore, Shattuck broke 30 U.S. records in short-course and long-course distances. He is swimming four events in Mexico City.
“I love to compete,” he said. “I’m excited to compete on the world stage and to meet all sorts of new people. I know that dwarfism isn’t really a disability because it’s provided me with a lot of different opportunities that I may never have had otherwise.”
He’s also excited for the nine newest members of Team USA heading to worlds.
“I think it’s really cool how we have this second generation of us up-and-comers to see what we can bring to the table in Mexico City,” he said. “I think it’s a good step toward what the future holds for Para swimming.”