Hannah Aspden competing in the women's 4x100-meter medley relay at the 2017 Para Swimming World Championship on Nov. 5, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Hannah Aspden remembers what it was like standing on a pool deck at her earliest Para swimming meets, surrounded by other athletes who were built like her and finding a sense of belonging.
She recalls being 10 years old and meeting three-time Paralympic swimmer Elizabeth Stone, who would become a mentor as Aspden made her first national team at the age of 13 and her first Paralympic team at 16. Aspden also knows what an impact swimming has made on her life, how she views herself and others, and how she sets goals.
Now 19 and gearing up to compete at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, Aspden hopes to influence the younger generation of swimmers who may be right where she was a few years ago.
“I really enjoy the development camps and the chance to meet up-and-coming swimmers who are just getting started,” she said. “I remember being there and being on that pool deck for the first time, meeting people and how exciting it all can be, and I want to encourage them to stick with it. If I can be for them what Elizabeth Stone was for me, I want to help them enjoy it and meet people and find their passion, find their place.”
Aspden, from Raleigh, North Carolina, is entering her sophomore year at Queens University of Charlotte and preparing to compete in her first Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, beginning Aug. 23. Three years ago, however, she was the youngest swimmer on Team USA to medal at either the Olympics or Paralympics in 2016 when she claimed bronze in the 100-meter backstroke and bronze in the 4x100-meter medley. Aspden was born with congenital hip disarticulation and has no left leg.
She made her first national team at 13 and competed in the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Pasadena, California, which she said was the first time she got to wear a cap with her name on it and the U.S. team jacket.
“It was all this new stuff that showed me what the sport could hold for me,” she said. “That was the first time I felt like such a part of a group and part of something bigger than myself, and I realized all of us can achieve something greater together than we can alone.”
It was also the first time she started thinking seriously about being part of the Paralympic Games that were to take place two years later in Rio. Aspden had kept in touch with Stone, whom she said helped show her the ropes and helped her find her path in the sport, while continuing to make connections with other experienced athletes as she worked toward Rio.
Being a Paralympic rookie and one of the youngest athletes at the Games in 2016 was a bit overwhelming at times, she said, but it was also an experience that reinforced exactly why she’d been working so hard for so long.
“Seeing that come to life was really exciting,” she said. “It was definitely a little weird being one of the youngest, but I did have a lot of fun being on a team with people who’d been to the Games before and just watching them and learning from them and seeing how it all works. It was my first experience at that high level of competition and to have people I could look up to and learn from and lean on was big because it was the biggest thing I’d ever been to.”
In the years since, Aspden has continued to grow in the sport, breaking two short course American records in the 100 backstroke and the 100 freestyle, winning a national title in the 100 backstroke in December and winning silver in the 4x100 medley at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia.
She started her college career, where in addition to swimming she’s majoring in multimedia storytelling — Aspden loves all things digital media, she said — and this summer has interned with Swim Across America, a non-profit that hosts charity swims to raise money and awareness for cancer research and treatment.
At the upcoming Parapan Am Games she’ll be swimming in five events, and while she has certain goals she hopes to accomplish, she said not all of them are tied to what the clock will read at the end of her swims. She’s also excited to move into a leadership role where she can try to mentor and encourage her teammates the way others did for her in the past.
“It’s nice not being the rookie and being able to answer these kids’ questions, helping them through meets when they’re nervous and their goggles are breaking and all this stuff is happening,” she said. “It’s a place that all swimmers end up at some point when there are complications along the way and I want to be able to help them manage that, manage their nerves and be part of the team. It’s so important to bring up this next generation of athletes and show them the way.”