Mikaela Jenkins competes in the Women's 400m Freestyle S10 Final during day three of the 2019 World Para-swimming Allianz Championships at Aquatics Centre on September 11, 2019 in London, England.
With plenty of young, promising athletes to watch on the ramp up to Tokyo next year, none stand out the way Mikaela Jenkins does for Para swimming.
The 17-year-old is reaching for a spot on the Paralympic squad and was well on her way after winning the 100-meter butterfly S10 at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships, and then a worldwide pandemic hit.
Her performance at the World Championships came after she set Pan American and American records in the 100 fly and 200 individual medley, respectively, earlier that year.
Even with the year-long delay for the Games, the young swimmer said she still feels the momentum that had her trending up toward representing Team USA in Tokyo and is ready to use the extra year to get even better.
“In a way, I'm grateful for it being postponed a year,” she said. “I feel like if I went into the Games this year, if I had made the team, I would have been unprepared, at least mentally, and there was only so much I could do because a lot has changed for me in the past year.”
Jenkins took three weeks off from training after the Tokyo Games were postponed, but quickly got back, using her neighbors pool and a bungee tie for two months until her club team returned to group training.
The feeling of being back with the team was just as important as returning to her home pool.
“Mostly I was really excited just to see my friends again,” she said. “A lot of them live on the other side of the town, so I was excited to see the people that I haven't seen in a couple months. I was really excited just to start something again with them.”
Born with left proximal femoral focal deficiency, Jenkins learned to swim at age four and began competitively at age eight. Her Paralympic hopes started at a meet in Cincinnati four years ago when former director of U.S. Paralympic Swimming Queenie Nichols encouraged her to train like an elite athlete.
Jenkins did exactly that and finds herself in contention as one of the top young Para swimmers in the world.
She is rarely intimidated by the moment and says competing and training with swimmers older than herself has expedited her own progress while providing benchmarks for what to achieve.
“Some of my closest friends are a lot older than me because we've spent so much time together on trips,” she said. “I just get really close to the other swimmers despite age differences.
“Since I am younger, I still have a lot more to improve and I can definitely see that when I'm swimming against other swimmers who are much older than me, cause they definitely have their technique and their stroke figured out and it just gives me something to strive for.”
Jenkins will stride into unfamiliar territory looking to qualify for Team USA, only complicated further as the pandemic continues to affect meet schedules. Even with the confidence gained from the World Championships, she acknowledges it will be a challenge as a newer swimmer.
“I feel like if you have experience, it makes it easier, in a certain sense. Obviously, it's still going to be hard, no matter how many things you've gone through, but you know what to expect,” she said. “So, I think it's just a learning experience honestly. I just kind of have to experience it so that I kind of know what's coming maybe later on down the road.”
Now back with her high school club in Indiana, Jenkins is not only focused on any one meet or competition but improving her technique day-by-day.
“I really want to see myself just kind of find my groove in terms of my swimming, because I've gotten a lot stronger and a lot faster over last year,” she said. “So, I’m just trying to figure out how to get everything to work together, just continuing to get stronger and really find my rhythm with my stroke.”