U.S. Paralympics Swi... Features For Ahalya Lettenber...

For Ahalya Lettenberger, Swimming Allows Her A Freedom Unlike Anything Else

By Bob Reinert | Oct. 27, 2020, 11:38 a.m. (ET)

Ahalya Lettenberger (left) and McKenzie Coan (right) pose with their medals after the Women's 400m Freestyle S7 Final at the London 2019 World Para-swimming Allianz Championships on Sept. 10, 2019 in London.

Ahalya Lettenberger’s first name appropriately means “blessing,” which is just what swimming has been to her.

Lettenberger has established herself as a rising talent in the world of Para swimming. At the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships in London, she won the silver medal in the 400-meter S7 freestyle and reached championship finals in a total of four events.

“That was definitely the highlight of my swimming career,” Lettenberger said. “To come home with a medal, it just can’t even be described. It was a dream come true.”

Despite being born with a form of arthrogryposis called amyoplasia, a musculoskeletal disorder that affects her from the hips down, Lettenberger has always been athletic. She began swimming at age 11 to cope with chronic hip pain and made an immediate splash. She began competing at age 12 and medals soon followed.

“I’m a really competitive person,” said Lettenberger, who had to give up land-based sports such as soccer and softball as she got older. “Eventually, that got too hard on my legs.”

Lettenberger, who is from an athletic family, certainly didn’t want to give up sports. A neighbor suggested swimming.

“I decided to give it a try, and I guess the rest is sort of history,” Lettenberger said. “It was this freedom I’d never really experienced before. For swimming, I was just like anybody else.

“I didn’t have a wheelchair holding me back or braces holding me back or other restrictions. It was just me and the pool. That’s what’s amazing about swimming.”

A native of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Lettenberger graduated from Glenbard West High School. The 19-year-old is now a sophomore at Rice University in Houston, where she is studying bioengineering and is a member of the women’s varsity swimming team. Rice opened its pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season Oct. 23 at Texas A&M.

“Campus is definitely different,” said Lettenberger of the COVID-19 restrictions at Rice. “Thank goodness we can still have practice. We just have an amazing team culture where we all support each other unconditionally.”

Lettenberger said she was drawn to Rice because of the balance she could achieve between academics and Division I collegiate swimming. She also has Para swimming to fit into the mix.

Through this community, I really learned to accept my disability and embrace it and see it for what it really is.

She has her sights set on the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in late June, and the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which have been rescheduled to Aug. 24-Sept. 5, 2021.

“Definitely, one of my goals is to win a medal at the Paralympics, whether it be in Tokyo or beyond that,” Lettenberger said. “I definitely want to shoot for Paris in 2024 and hopefully win a medal there.”

As ambitious as her goals are in the pool, Lettenberger has even bigger plans out of it.

“Outside of swimming, I want to go to medical school and be a doctor, and I really want to help other people with disabilities,” Lettenberger said. “I just really have a passion for helping others.”

In that quest, Lettenberger wants to apply what she has learned in her own life.

“Growing up, I definitely didn’t accept my disability and pretended I was just like anybody else when I really wasn’t in reality,” Lettenberger admitted. “It was just really hard for me to accept my disability.”

Para swimming changed all of that. In that setting, she met people with many different impairments.

“Through this community, I really learned to accept my disability and embrace it and see it for what it really is,” Lettenberger said. “That’s like a part of my identity that has helped shape who I am. I wouldn’t trade it for the world now.”

Instead of trading it, Lettenberger hopes to share it with others.

“Through medicine, I want to kind of give back to that community,” said Lettenberger, “and help other people find themselves and learn to accept their disabilities and embrace them.”

Just because Lettenberger learned to accept her own disability doesn’t mean she ever let it hold her back. Backing down from a challenge isn’t in her DNA.

“It doesn’t mean that you’re not able; it’s just that you’re different able,” Lettenberger said. “If people told me I couldn’t do something, I wanted to prove them wrong, and I still do.”

Bob Reinert

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Ahalya Lettenberger