Swimmer Evan Austin is getting ready to go to his third Paralympic Games, and he can still remember that moment when he learned he was going to his first Games back in 2012.
“There was that immediate feeling at the team announcement when they just said my name,” he said. “And I’d heard my name a million times before; I’ll hear my name 10 million times later in life, but that was one so significant moment.”
When Austin heard his name for a third time following the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis in June, it was no less special. He trained differently and prepared differently this go-around, and now at 28 years old the Terre Haute, Indiana, native is hoping to snag his first Paralympic medal.
“To come back and be on the doorstep of going to a third Games, and one that I think I’m maybe best prepared to bring home some hardware for, it’s a huge honor,” he said. “I’m just super thankful and grateful that I have this community and village that supports me and allows me to keep doing this.”
Austin was a resident at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, leading up to the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and as recently as the summer of 2019. But that fall he decided he needed a change, so he moved back to Indiana and began working and training with the Purdue women’s swim team. He became the official volunteer assistant coach for the 2020-21 season and not only helps head coach John Klinge but also trains under him as well.
“New coach, new system, it’s a different style,” said Austin, who has spastic paraplegia and will compete in the S7 50-meter butterfly, S7 400-meter freestyle and SM7 200-meter IM in Tokyo. “And now I’m the only adaptive sport athlete and I train exclusively with college-age women on the Purdue swimming and diving team. the environment’s certainly different. I like it. On meet days I’m on the pool deck saying this is how we can do this is how we can perfect strokes and things like that. And then the next day I’m right back in the water with them. It’s been an interesting dynamic that’s definitely changed my mindset and my mind frame.”
Austin admitted he wasn’t so sure coming into the situation how he’d be received. He was really, truly scared, he said, about what the women on the team would think and how they would react.
“Like, here’s this guy who knew the (former) assistant coach (Molly Belk) coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I’m here to help you guys get better, and also I’m going to train with you,’” he said. “I didn’t know if they’d have some walls or some reservations about that, and they could not have been more welcoming. From day one I felt like I was a member of the family there and the bond has only grown in the last two years.”
Serving as a coach has changed Austin’s training significantly. For one, he said, he believes he’s more coachable now, and has a different attitude toward criticism and critique.
“You talk amongst coaches about a swimmer’s technique, and then when somebody’s talking to you about your technique it’s like, OK, I have this new level of understanding of where that’s coming from and what he’s trying to accomplish and what he’s trying to say,” Austin said. “He wants me to get better. I think it’s given me more patience and more perspective as an athlete.”
In Austin’s Paralympic debut, he finished sixth in the 100-meter breaststroke and in the 34 pt. 4x100-meter freestyle. In 2016, he was again sixth in the 34 pt. 4x100-meter freestyle and the 34 pt. 4x100 medley and eighth in the 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter breaststroke.
Then the fall of 2019 he had a breakthrough performance at the world championships, winning the title in the 50-meter butterfly.
“I really was looking for that benchmark moment in my career to say that’s when I knew I was the real deal,” he said. “Not a lot of people get to say they were world champion in anything.”
Despite the interruptions of 2020, Austin set two lifetime bests at the Para Swimming World Series stop in Lewisville, Texas, in April, winning the 50-meter butterfly and 400-meter freestyle and setting American records in the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle.
“I really didn’t expect to do that, and as a 28-year-old that was fantastic news,” he said. “It was a perfect example of the training and hard work at Purdue putting us on the right track.”