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After Hard-Earned Medals in Rio, Paralympic Swimmer Hannah Aspden Hungry For More At Worlds

By Stuart Lieberman | Nov. 30, 2017, 1:46 p.m. (ET)

Hannah Aspden looks to claim her first world title in Mexico City.


High school senior Hannah Aspden has nearly 30 magnets on her personal whiteboard in her basement, all souvenirs from different destinations where she has swam competitively.

“It’s accumulating, and it’s really cool to sit here and look at it every day and think about how it started with one magnet,” she said. “It’s crazy to think about.”

All year long, the two-time Paralympic medalist has been looking forward to adding a Mexico City magnet to her board from the World Para Swimming Championships. But in the wake of a 7.1-magnitude earthquake that rocked Mexico City on Sept. 19, the International Paralympic Committee announced the event would have to be postponed with just over a week until it was set to begin. The IPC and Agitos Foundation launched a global fundraising campaign to support UNICEF’s humanitarian efforts in Mexico — to date almost $40,000 has been raised — and rescheduled the championships to Dec. 2-7.

That’s given Aspden extra preparation time for her second world championships appearance, where she’ll be competing in five events: 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle, 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley.

She’ll be one of 13 Paralympians on the 22-strong Team USA roster in Mexico City; all athletes who were originally scheduled to compete in September will be making the trip south in December.

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As a high school junior, Aspden was the youngest swimmer on Team USA to win a medal at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, taking bronze in the 100 backstroke and 4x100 34-point medley.

“That was a tremendous honor,” Aspden said. “That was kind of surreal. Winning that medal was quite a big moment in my life that I’d been dreaming about for years. For that to come true was really awesome."

Born with a congenital hip disarticulation and no left leg, Aspden began swimming competitively as an 8-year-old at her local YMCA in Raleigh, North Carolina.

She credits Elizabeth Stone for helping launch her swimming career; the three-time Paralympian took 10-year-old Aspden under her wing, introducing her to the nuances of adaptive sports and what it takes to become one of the fastest swimmers in the pool. Stone gave Aspden a swimming cap from one of her Paralympic appearances, with her name printed underneath the American flag.

That set a fire for competition in Aspden’s belly. She then began swimming in the S9/SB8/SM9 classifications, which are for athletes with joint restrictions in one leg or with double below-the-knee amputations.

Three years later, in 2014, Aspden made her first U.S. national team by a margin of .01 seconds.

The following season, in her world championships debut, she struck silver in the 4x100 freestyle 34-point and she took fourth in three events and sixth in another.

But leading up to her Paralympic debut in Rio, something went wrong.

Aspden began to experience dizziness, memory loss and an upset stomach. She was always tired and her blood pressure was high. There were days she couldn’t crawl up the stairs of her family’s home or get out of bed.

Following trips to the emergency room and doctors’ appointments, she was diagnosed with dysautonomia, an autoimmune disorder that harms the autonomic nervous system. She was forced to skip training sessions in the months leading up to the Games, and her mother even suggested that taking a year away from the sport at the time was an option.

But Aspden battled through it like nobody expected, making the journey to the pool’s starting blocks a major accomplishment in itself.

In Rio, Aspden’s 100 backstroke time of 1:10.67 broke the American record and she burst into tears after winning another bronze in the relay.

That was certainly a tough-to-get, but well-earned magnet for her whiteboard.

After returning from Rio, Aspden, who now has the powerful shoulders of an elite swimmer, took time away from the pool, speaking to several schools and youth swim teams. Leading up to the world championships, she’s put a new focus on the mental side of her sport, learning that her mindset and where her head is at is just as important for her as her physicality in the pool.

“I heard people say you can either win or lose a race before you even get in the water, depending on your attitude and how you’re managing those nerves,” she said. “I’ve been working on that, staying positive and being mentally strong.”

Looking past the world championships, Aspden has already committed to swim next year for Queens University of Charlotte, where she hopes to study graphic design or digital media, an interest that has gravitated from her passion for comic book movies.

So perhaps by this time next year, she’ll be designing her own magnets as she flies from competition to competition.

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.

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Hannah Aspden