Parker Egbert looks up at the scoreboard after a race at the U.S. Paralympics Team Trials. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Parker Egbert didn’t sit still during the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships last month in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The 18-year-old from Greenville, South Carolina, was constantly on the move. He went from racing in the pool to hanging with friends inside the Greensboro Aquatic Center. He was so excited to be around swimmers like him that his mother, Laura Egbert, had a difficult time keeping track of him during the three-day meet.
“I just wanted to have a good time and win some medals,” Parker Egbert said, wearing a face mask that had Sonic the Hedgehog on the front of it.
Egbert was born with autism and didn’t start talking until he was 6. His mother taught him to swim, and she saw that he was calmer and had more fun as a kid when he was splashing around in the pool in their backyard.
Egbert tends to swim better when he’s happy, and his mother said her son has been happy since swimming at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 this past summer.
His excitement showed during his dominant performance in Greensboro. He won three gold medals and a silver while competing alongside several of his teammates from the U.S. Paralympics Swimming national team.
“When he went to Tokyo, I think it was his first time realizing that there were kids like him. You know, when you swim on a club team, you’re always compared to your teammates on the club, and he’s the only Parker on the team,” Laura Egbert said.
“… But when he went to Tokyo, he was looking around, I feel, and he was kind of like, ‘Hey, I fit in here, like these are my friends.’ At home, a lot of times he’s by himself on the bleachers at meets and stuff like that. Not many people interact with him. Here (in Greensboro) I don’t even know where he is, so he’s enjoying himself. He’s happy, and I think happiness produces great results.”
Parker Egbert won both of his races on the opening night of nationals on Dec. 17. He won the men’s 400-meter freestyle with a time of 4 minutes, 34.74 seconds, and followed it up with a win in the men’s 100 butterfly at 1:02.1.
The following night, the Paralympian earned his third victory of the meet when he narrowly beat fellow S14 athlete Lawrence Sapp with a time of 1:02.89 in the men’s 100 backstroke. He also finished second in the men’s 100 breaststroke.
“The strokes that I improved (on) is for the backstroke,” Parker Egbert said, “and some other strokes I need to improve on is the breaststroke.”
Laura Egbert said she had no intentions of turning her son into a Paralympian when he started swimming at 12. Though she grew up swimming, she ran cross country and track and field at Drake University in Iowa.
Parker Egbert was diagnosed with autism when he was an infant. Since he didn’t talk for the first few years, he had difficulty communicating and often shrieked. His mother said she couldn’t bring him to a public pool.
“So, we were fortunate enough to put a pool in our home, and at that moment, I had great fear for him to not drown,” Laura Egbert said. “… I just put him in the water, and when he was in the water, he was calm and quiet and happy. … He would get out of the water, and he was a different child.”
Laura Egbert said her son’s time in the pool turned into a form of “playtime, therapy time.” He said he now tries to swim every day.
“Swimming is my favorite sport of all time, like being peaceful in the water and making new friends and competing in the water,” he said.
Laura Egbert didn’t know there was a class for athletes like her son in the Paralympics until someone at a meet asked her, “Why is he not swimming Paralympics?”
Parker Egbert was named to the 2020 U.S. Paralympics Swimming national team, and he was looking promising as a swimmer when the coronavirus pandemic started.
“We put an endless pool in (at our house) because at that point we could kind of see that maybe this will be his path,” his mother said. “We didn’t want to give up all that training. … I ran him eight miles every day. We did weights and training in our garage, so it was as if he was never out of the pool.
“So, when he jumped back into the pool, he was actually ahead of the people who weren’t able to get into the pool, so it was beneficial.”
Parker Egbert said he enjoyed his time competing at the Tokyo Paralympics despite the strict safety protocols in place due to the pandemic.
He made new friends in the Paralympic Village and was “astonished with amazement” at the colorful fireworks that went off during the Opening Ceremony.
“Well, I was in Tokyo with my friends,” Parker Egbert said. “I think I experienced that Tokyo is a big world, and I saw many athletes in the Olympic Village training for their big Paralympic Games.”
His mother added, “He grew up overnight.”
And now he’s having even more fun swimming.