Drennan Shall, 11, prepares to dive into the pool before one of his races. (Photo: Joey Kirkman)
Drennan Shall stood next to his father on the pool deck and smiled as he put into words what this past weekend was like for him.
The 11-year-old Shall was star-struck at times as he competed at his first U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships inside the Greensboro Aquatic Center. He considered it his introduction to the Para world.
“It has been amazing to see all of my Paralympic stars, I guess,” said Shall, who made the 90-minute trip from his home in Charlotte to compete in Greensboro. “It has been really exciting to watch them, and I’ve just had a great time swimming.”
The U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships featured 27-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long, six-time medalist McKenzie Coan and several top Americans who made their Paralympic debuts this past summer in Tokyo.
The three-day event also provided young rising stars, including some who are still a few years away from graduating from high school, the opportunity to make an impression while racing against older, more proven swimmers.
Team USA coaches were able to watch the younger athletes compete after not getting that many opportunities to see them swim because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“All in all, it’s great to have the younger athletes here just to let them see and understand that, you know, with hard work, time, dedication, belief, faith and a support group, this can be something that was a career,” said Jamal Hill, who earned a bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“But it’s also letting them know again in those conversations (we have), ‘Dude, it’s not about swimming. It’s about the person you become on this journey.’”
Shall was the youngest athlete to win a gold medal in Greensboro when he swam the anchor leg on a team with Coan, two-time gold medalist Hannah Aspden and bronze medalist Matthew Torres in Friday’s mixed 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
Shall returned following his big opening-night win and earned his second gold in Sunday’s mixed 4x100 medley relay, which was the final race of the nationals.
“I was very excited to finally go to a huge Para meet,” Shall said. “It was super fun to train and be able to come out to Greensboro.”
At only 11, Shall isn’t looking to qualify anytime soon for the Paralympics. He said he’s hoping to compete at the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles.
Maria Francescotti, meanwhile, is already an experienced swimmer at age 14. The teenager from Hilton Head, South Carolina, has been swimming competitively since she was 5.
Francescotti said she didn’t have any expectations heading into this past weekend when Greensboro hosted the nationals for the first time. Her focus is on improving her times in the pool, so she could hopefully qualify for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
“I had wanted to just enjoy it and do my best,” Francescotti said. “And yeah, I’m really happy with how I swam.”
Francescotti earned a bronze in Friday’s mixed 4x100 freestyle relay. Two days later, she followed it up with a silver in the mixed 4x100 medley relay, finishing just behind Shall’s winning team.
“It’s a great experience,” Francescotti said. “I loved being here and seeing everybody and swimming.”
Fellow 14-year-old Rachel Keehn of Carrollton, Georgia, earned the silver in the women’s 200-meter breaststroke on Friday.
The field for the nationals featured a mix of young athletes, collegiate swimmers, Paralympic hopefuls and Paralympians. However, some veterans on the U.S. Paralympics Swimming national team decided not to compete only four months after returning from Tokyo.
Nathan Manley, the high-performance director for U.S. Paralympics Swimming, said before the meet that several young swimmers could benefit from the field not being as deep.
“It can be exciting for younger, developing athletes because you move those top performers out of the way and it lets the spotlight shine down the pipeline a little bit,” Manley said.