Hannah Aspden poses with her gold medal on the podium in Tokyo. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Hannah Aspden had been to the Paralympic Games before this summer, and she’d been in high-pressure situations plenty of times.
But this was different.
She was the fastest swimmer in qualifying in the heats of the women’s S9 100-meter backstroke, and she’d never gone into a final that big as the one to beat. There was a time when that might have thrown her off her game, but not this summer. She listened to music, kept moving, kept her heart rate up and tried to enjoy every moment. The result was Aspden’s first Paralympic gold medal.
“I’ve been working for the past few years, since Rio definitely, on finding my love for the sport again and specifically for competing,” said Aspden, who was born with congenital hip disarticulation and has no left leg. “In practice you can love what you do but when it comes to race time it’s easy to let stress and nerves and doubt take over. What I’ve been working on, I put into practice there especially in the call room and walking out with your toughest competitors.”
Aspden was the youngest Team USA medalist at either the Olympic or Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016, when she was just 16 and won two bronze medals. There are lots of things about the experience that she just doesn’t remember, however, and she believes it’s because she was just too overwhelmed by the stress of having to perform.
As Aspden worked toward finding the joy in competition again, she graduated high school. Started college. Competed at the world championships and multiple other major international meets. She grew up and became a veteran presence.
She also, like swimmers all over the country, had her sport taken away from her when pools closed in the early months of the pandemic last year.
“Not being able to compete and race or even be in the water helped me when I was able to do it again to fully appreciate it and see it for the opportunity it was,” she said. “Not a stressor, but the reward for the hard work. Getting back in the water for the first time in five months, moments like that make you remember why you fell in love with the water. And getting back on the blocks for the first time in over a year reminds you that feeling, that energy, this is why you do what you do every year. Walking back on the pool deck and seeing your teammates for the first time in over a year, people I’ve known since I was 10, and feeling that sense of community and belonging just reminded me why I love it so much.”
After returning from Tokyo with gold not only in the 100-meter backstroke but also the 4x100-meter medley, Aspden got to spend two much-needed weeks with family decompressing and recharging. Her post-Paralympic celebration after that included a reception at the North Carolina governor’s mansion and one at Queens University of Charlotte, where she goes to school.
Although it’s felt a bit overwhelming at times, she said, and not in her nature to want to be so much in the spotlight, Aspden knows there’s a lot of value for the Paralympic Movement in the increased visibility.
“Meeting the governor was incredible, not just personally but for the Para movement,” she said. “The fact that Paralympic athletes were invited along with Olympic athletes was a huge, huge step for us and one that might not have happened a few years ago. It shows how far we’ve come with recognition and it was an important step, so it was amazing to be there for that.”
Aspden has also recently helped to shine a light on another disability that until this month she rarely shared.
In November 2015, Aspden became ill with a respiratory virus. Soon after, she began experiencing a wide variety of symptoms that led to her eventual diagnosis with a form of dysautonomia called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS. It’s often triggered by viral infection, pregnancy, surgery or other trauma, and affects 1 in 100 teenagers in the U.S. along with 170 in 100,000 people nationwide.
“Basically it just messes up all of your body’s automatic functions, all the stuff you don’t have to think about doing,” she said. “Breathing, blood pressure, circulation, your GI system, heart rate, everything that automatically happens can start to not function the way that it should. Obviously that causes a lot of issues and wide-ranging symptoms, which is why it can be so hard to diagnose.”
Tremors, headaches, nausea, dizziness, fainting, brain fog and fatigue are just a few of the ways POTS can manifest itself, she said. There were times leading up to Rio that she was so tired she couldn’t even make it up the stairs to her room. Getting back in the water and training required baby steps as she worked with doctors to figure out how to manage her symptoms. It took about a year and a half to reach a stable point, she said.
“Not having a leg doesn’t impact me as much in the water as dysautonomia most times,” she said.
Six years later, things are much better. Exercise helps, she said, as does salt. She trains differently than other people, but she’s found what works.
While the POTS diagnosis hasn’t been something she’s talked about often, she’s seeing the benefits of shedding light on the disorder.
“It’s interesting talking about having a visible disability, like not having a leg, and also having an invisible disability that, honestly, impacts me even more,” she said. “Obviously of the first things people see is, oh, she doesn’t have a leg. But when you look at anyone you have no idea what they’re going through or what they have going on or what obstacles they face every day. Especially recently I feel like I should talk about it more often than I do. It’s important to remember that you never know what other people are facing, so be patient and be kind, not just with others but with yourself.”