Mikeala Jenkins claimed the first world title of her career in the women’s 100m fly S10 (1:07.07) at the World Para Swimming Championships in London.
Mikaela Jenkins is just a typical 16-year-old girl in many regards.
She recently started driving and likes to go to her best friend’s house and watch TV or a movie when she’s not busy with schoolwork and other obligations.
It’s those other obligations that separate her from the rest of her classmates and kids her age, however.
Jenkins is a world champion swimmer with aspirations of making her first Paralympic team next summer, and winning the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly S10 at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships in London in September was certainly a good start.
“I was definitely happy,” she said about winning gold. “People I follow on Instagram who I always looked up to started following me back and telling me good job for my swims. I was like, ‘This is so cool.’”
Jenkins was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a rare birth defect that causes one leg to be shorter than the other, and had her left foot amputated when she was less than 9 months old. As a child in York, Pennsylvania, she was a horseback rider, but when she was about 7 or 8 years old, she said, a friend convinced her to come join her on the local swim team.
“I said, ‘Fine, I’ll come once if you stop asking me,’” said Jenkins, who now lives in Evansville, Indiana. “I kinda quit riding horses the next day.”
By the time she was 10 years old, Jenkins was already reading about and watching Olympic swimmers and dreaming about what it might be like to compete on that stage one day, but as an amputee she knew that if those dreams weren’t impossible, they definitely wouldn’t be easy to achieve.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that a coach told her about an open Para swimming competition in Cincinnati, Ohio, and suggested she try it out and get classified.
“I said, ‘OK, what’s Para swimming?’” she said. “I Googled it and learned more about it and thought it would be fun. Then I got invited to attend the developmental camp there and learned a lot more about it.”
It was at that meet that something happened that would put Jenkins on the path to the Paralympic Games. Queenie Nichols, who heads up the U.S. Paralympics Swimming program, was there and she noticed Jenkins, who’d just turned 13.
“I remember she told me after that if I really, really wanted to do this and I really wanted to make the Tokyo team and really wanted to become serious about becoming a Paralympic athlete, she thought I had what it took to do it,” Jenkins said. “She said I was an amazing athlete and if I really put my mind to it she could see big things for me.”
That was all Jenkins needed to hear. She went from swimming three times a week for an hour and a half to seven days a week for a lot longer. She started lifting weights and training outside the pool. It just grew and grew, she said, until she found herself working her way up the ranks nationally. In 2018 she was named to the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships roster, her biggest international meet to date, and was named to the B national team for the 2019 season.
In April she set a Pan American record in the 100 fly in her class with a time of 1:07.61 and then set an American record in the SM10 class in the 200 individual medley with a time of 2:33.60 at the world series stop in Indianapolis, swimming in her home state.
She felt good, if a bit nervous, going into the world championships in London in September but remembers feeling a little sluggish the night before the 100-meter butterfly final.
Right off the block, she said, she knew she was off to a slow start. That continued the first 50 meters, and when she pushed off the wall after the turn knew she was at least a half body length behind the swimmer next to her.
“I remember telling myself I need to pick this up or I’m going to lose,” she said. “I just put my head down the rest of the 50. When I touched the wall before I looked back I remember thinking, ‘Don’t be upset, second place is still good,’ then I turned around saw my name in first and I had to look at it a couple times to make sure I wasn’t crazy.”
Her time was 1:07.07, ahead of Italy’s Alessia Scortechini in 1:07.46. Jenkins also won two silver medals in the 34 pt. 4x100m free and 34 pt. 4x100 medley relays. Additionally, she placed fifth in the 200 IM, sixth in the 100 backstroke and eighth in the 400 freestyle and 100 breaststroke.
At this weekend’s Para National Championships, Jenkins hopes to match her times from the world championships in order to keep on track for 2020.
The idea of competing on the sport’s biggest stage next summer is one that’s both intimidating — she tries “not to throw up” when she sees a photo or commercial about 2020, she said — and exciting.
“A lot of times when I think about it I imagine myself about to walk out and how I’d feel and then I imagine myself touching the wall, and then I turn around and I have a world record time or something ridiculous like that,” she said. “And that makes me feel better.”