One-year hiatus over: Anna Johannes dives back in the water

By Laurie Fullerton | Dec. 05, 2014, 4:01 p.m. (ET)
Anna Johannes 
 Anna Johannes will return to competition at the Speedo Can-Am Para Swimming Championships in Edmonton, Alberta.

Swimmer Anna Johannes won bronze medal in the 4x100-meter medley at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and held speed records for the 100-meter breaststroke and 200-meter individual medley, but a torn labrum shoulder injury has kept her out of competition for much of 2014 — until now.

Johannes said she would hit the water with gusto and some trepidation at the Speedo Can-Am Para Swimming Championships, which run today through Sunday in Edmonton, Alberta.

Although somewhat nervous about her re-entry into high-level competition after a year hiatus, the 21-year-old Johannes said that she has been mentally ready to get back into competition for a long time. However, she has realized that it just takes a very long time for a shoulder injury to fully heal. Throughout the past three months, in particular, she has been ramping up her training to include weightlifting, coaching and swimming.

Now feeling physically prepared, Johannes hopes this weekend’s competition can be a benchmark on her way to greater goals.

“Ultimately, my goal is to compete in the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016,” she said. “I just didn’t want London to be my last hurrah. Rio is my goal.”

In addition to her relay bronze medal in London, Johannes also finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke and fifth in the 200 IM.

“Being at the London games was such an amazing experience,” she said. “I saw how people really support the event there, and we competed to a packed auditorium the entire time. There was a great energy around us that was amazing. London was absolutely great, but I still want to get to Rio and do well.”

Johannes said that her coach often says that, “big dreams are what we are about,” and she couldn’t agree more.

“One year ago, I had surgery on my shoulder,” said Johannes, who coaches and trains with able-bodied swimmers at the University of Louisville. “It has taken me a long time to get back into the water, longer than I thought. Physical therapy can be pretty awful and painful.”

During her rehabilitation, she has also been working on a university degree through DeVry University, an official education provider for the United States Olympic Committee.

“I will be graduating from university in 2016 and hopefully going for gold in the Rio Paralympics in September 2016,” she said.

Johannes was born in 1993 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, without a left hand and forearm due to a birth defect caused by Amniotic band syndrome.

Adopted by American parents, she has always loved swimming, and Johannes swam and competed throughout her life in both able-bodied and Paralympic events. In 2011, she earned five gold medals and one silver medal at the Parapan American Games, setting a Parapan American record in the 100 breast and 100 fly.

After the life-altering London Games, she continued to compete in world events throughout 2013, although she was competing with an injury, and finally decided on having shoulder surgery.

Her return to competition after a year off and a grueling rehabilitation has “been a scary ride,” she said. She hopes her physical strength and training will be enough. Coaching, Johannes noted, has also helped her focus on her own swimming strengths and weaknesses. She will not be swimming butterfly because of the surgery and subsequent rehabilitation but has remained focused on breaststroke — her best event.

“I can’t do butterfly, and that was one of my best events,” Johannes said. “I would like to be further along in my rehabilitation, and sometimes I question what I am doing. But I definitely want to keep at it and reach my goals.”

Despite her years of competing and coaching in both able-bodied and Paralympic events, Johannes feels that being a Paralympian requires a unique level of mental and physical stamina.

“I think that many of us Paralympians have a unique kind of mental toughness,” she said. “A lot of us train with able-bodied athletes, but it takes a certain kind of strength to take it a step further and excel as a Paralympian.”

“I hope to see the Paralympics get out there even more,” she added. “It should also be fun competing in Brazil.”

For now, Johannes is pumped up for what should be an exciting four days of swimming. She said she has already seen some old friends, and the event is bringing swimmers in from Canada, Brazil, the United States and Europe.

Johannes added that, “I am excited for this meet today. I am looking forward to this week’s competition. I am excited.

“I do feel like I want to wear a sign that says, ‘I have been away from competition for a while,’ but I am hoping that when I step up on the block, it will all come back to me.”

Laurie Fullerton writes about sports and outdoors — particularly sailing — for a number of newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.