Olivia Chambers competes at the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships. (Photo: Laura Wolff)
Life has come fast for Olivia Chambers over the past two years. The twists and turns culminated in Chambers being named to the U.S. Para swimming national team in January, and then making her first world championships team last week.
The rapid rise began in July of 2022 when Chambers broke the American record in the 400-meter individual medley S13 at the USA Swimming Futures Championships in Minneapolis. Her time of 5:21.68 shattered a 10-year-old mark set by three-time Paralympic gold medalist Becca Meyers (5:23.60).
In December 2022, at the Para national championships in Charlotte, North Carolina, she won three medals, including golds in the 400 freestyle and 200 IM, and was named Swimmer of the Meet after accumulating the most points at the competition.
Then, in April, Chambers, 19, returned to the same Minneapolis pool where she set her American record and put together another strong showing. She earned three medals at the world series event, including gold in the 200 IM, where she tied two-time Paralympic gold medalist Elizabeth Marks for the top spot.
“I like going back to pools I’ve already been to because I know what the lighting is going to be like,” said Chambers, who’s legally blind. “I know what the pools kind of look like through my eyes.”
For Chambers, excelling internationally goes hand in hand with improving as a collegiate swimmer. The sophomore is a member of the University of Northern Iowa swimming team.
“I've learned so much more than I ever could have imagined. I just love the Para swimming community,” Chambers said. “It’s been so great getting to know other people who have been through similar situations as I have. And I mean before this I really didn’t know anyone who was blind or anything like that.
“So just getting new friends and learning how all the Para meets work has been exciting.”
Swimming has been a lifelong passion for Chambers. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, her mother signed her up for swim lessons when she was 3. A year later, she was participating in competitive meets.
“I’ve always had a love for being in the water,” she said. “It’s where I get all my energy out. It helps me relieve my stress.”
Swimming helped get Chambers through tough times, especially as she sought answers while her eyesight deteriorated. Chambers said she first started experiencing blurriness in her vision August of 2019. Trips to specialists followed, and in 2021, she was declared legally blind.
Just as Chambers was seeking answers, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It took her, temporarily, out of her safe place, the pool.
“COVID threw me off,” she said. “I’m a very social person. I use swimming to get through my eye issues. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be today.”
Chambers found a way back into the water quickly; she used a friend’s home swimming pool and added on a stretch cord to help in the workouts.
All the while, Chambers has learned to continue racing at a high level with her vision impairment. By counting strokes between her turns, she has been able to adjust to her eyesight challenges. She can also pick up on shadows coming from walls and the bottom of the pool.
“I can just feel it out, where I need to turn — lighting; darker, brighter — what the bottom of the pool looks like,” she said. “I usually figure it out (after practice swims and) by the time I warm up (for a race). By the time I race, I’m pretty good with my walls.”
Chambers, who was named the Arkansas Outstanding Distance Swimmer of the Year in high school, credited her fellow swimmers at UNI with providing an essential support system as got more involved in Para swimming and transitioned to college far away from home. Little Rock is about 700 miles from the Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“My teammates really helped me more than I could ever have imagined,” she said.
Chambers arrived on the UNI campus last year. She was named the Missouri Valley Conference Swimmer of the Week in late December following her performance at the national championships.
“Her motivation and drive to achieve her goals, especially while training solo, is truly something special,” Ben Colin, an assistant coach at UNI, said in a press release.
Chambers is majoring in biology and plans on turning that into a double major along with psychology. She’s interested in going into the medical field with the possibility of becoming a psychiatrist.
“I’ve been through it all, and I think I can help others,” she said.
Chambers said she would love to qualify for the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. She recalled watching the London Olympics in 2012 and being captivated by it. But she knows there’s still work to be put in.
“I'm just continuing to get better. I made the national A team, so that was a step in the right direction,” Chambers said. “And just being here, you know, everything I could have ever imagined.”