A world exists where Martha Ruether has fantastic vision and competes at an elite level.
That world is a swimming pool, and Ruether has catapulted herself to being one of the top Paralympic freestyle swimmers in the world.
Considering she’s completely blind in her left eye and has 20/400 vision in a right eye that has a retina barely hanging on, that says a lot.
Though she lacks much depth perception in her right eye, she continues to overcome obstacles and has risen in the ranks, including competing at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. This week she’s racing in Berlin at the World Para Swimming World Series.
“This is the biggest event I’ve swam since Rio,” the Allegany, New York, native said.
Ruether’s history of overcoming the odds dates back to 23 years ago this week, when she was born 16 weeks prematurely and weighed just 1 pound, 8 ounces. The trauma of early birth left her legally blind.
As a kid, she couldn’t play traditional sports on the playground — think kickball, dodge ball or soccer — because any harsh contact to her head could’ve jarred loose her only good retina.
“It made sense for me to start swimming, because we really didn’t have any other options for sports,” Ruether said.
Ruether took up swimming at an early age and learned all the strokes by first grade. In sixth grade she began swimming competitively for the Allegany-Limestone High School varsity team. Since the school only had a varsity team, swimmers had to meet a standard of swimming 500 yards in eight minutes. The sixth-grade Ruether swam it in 7:55.
She never claimed to be the fastest freestyle or breaststroke swimmer while honing her craft in high school, but she can pinpoint two time frames in the last seven years when she improved by leaps and bounds.
“I wasn’t really fast on a world or national level, but for my area I was fast,” Ruether said. “I really just went from slow to faster my junior year of high school.”
Ruether credits her improvement to swimming year-round and working out in the offseason. She broke her school’s record in the 50-yard freestyle before swimming at Lake Erie College for two years, and that was her next breakthrough.
“I got better on the world level my sophomore year of college,” she said. “I started eating better, started doing doubles and started lifting. I learned hard work and discipline on what you should and shouldn’t do.”
Once her college coach left for another job, Ruether also went her separate way — to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
She competed at her first world championships in 2013, finishing fifth in the 50 freestyle. In 2015, she finished eighth in the 50 free and had seventh-place finishes in both the 100 free and 100 breaststroke. Then, last year, Ruether qualified for the Rio Games and made the final of the 100 breaststroke, but she missed the cut in the freestyle, which she still considers her best stroke.
With her condition, Ruether says she has issues with depth perception, so she has trouble with things like reading road signs or recognizing people when they walk into a room. Her vision is good enough to read and perform other small tasks, though, and in the pool she sees just about everything.
“In the pool I can see nine times out of 10 of everything,” she said. “In swim situations there are very few things I can’t see.”
She said the only times she has trouble in the pool is during the backstroke when she looks upward at the flags and the lights shine down. And the depth perception on those important turns still gives her fits in races 100 meters or greater in long courses.
“In the 100 free, if I miss a turn it’s kind of a panic to catch up, but that’s any given day,” Ruether said. “It’s something you learn to work around. It’s a situation where you really can’t control it, but just work around the issue.”
Since Rio, she went to the College at Brockport in New York and obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She will return to the OTC before attempting to find a grad school in the Boston area and eventually go for her master’s and doctorate’s degrees — both in psychology.
Ruether said she wants to eventually get into the study of phantom limb syndrome or some type of trauma psychology. Meanwhile, in this four-year quad, she has aspirations to be back on the world’s biggest stage.
“I need to work on nailing my turns and know my race like the back of my hand instead of thinking about it on the blocks,” Ruether said. “I want to make it to the world championships and medal, and I want to get to Tokyo in 2020 and medal.”
Though her sight was impaired from the outset, it hasn’t affected her vision of the long run.
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.