A week ago yesterday I swam in my very last race of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the 200m IM. Over the past 7 days I have been searching for a way to put into words how I feel following the conclusion of these Games. I still haven’t been able to grasp that it is over. I dreamt of the Rio 2016 Games since I sat in London for the Closing Ceremonies of the London 2012 Games, that very night a dream was born, my dream for the Rio 2016 Games. I knew leaving London that although I was proud of my accomplishments, I wanted more, I strived for more.
Now, here I am and Rio has come and gone. These Games took more fight to get to and to get through than anything I have experienced in my career. The road to Rio was one filled with many twists and turns, one filled with more hardship than I would have liked at times, but also one filled with more life and love than I could have ever hoped for. It is amazing how much life happens in four years, while you sit and focus on the next Games life continues on, it doesn’t have a pause button while you chase your dream, it continues on and throws you your fair share of ups and downs along the way.
As I sit here I find myself reflecting on the journey it took to get to Rio, the grit it took to make it through Rio and most of all I find myself content, satisfied and proud of what I left in Rio. As I sit here today, I can say with all that I am that I left everything I had, every ounce of my being, every last bit of fight I had in me, I left all of it in that pool in Rio. I didn’t come home a medalist from these Games, in fact this is my very first international competition that I have returned empty handed. Although, this is the very first competition in my career that I have returned from that I don’t have a single doubt, that I don’t have a single second guess or what if. I know that not only did I leave everything I had in that pool, but I also know that I did absolutely everything I could going into Rio.
This journey was one filled with its fair share of uncertainty. Following my arm injury, I didn’t know if it was possible to compete again, let alone make it to Rio. The other day I was asked why returning following injury was so important to me, my answer was simple, I owed it to myself to see my dream through, I never wanted to look back and feel like I had given up on my dreams. So, for the past two years we did just that, we poured everything we had into this dream of mine and now, as I sit here I can proudly say that I have had the honor of representing Team USA at two Paralympic Games making me a two time Paralympian.
I swam 7 individual events in Rio, a program that I never thought I would swim again and I fought my way to finals in 4 of the 7 events. Throughout competition I learned in one of the hardest ways possible that what my mind and heart want so badly, my body may not physically be capable of. I have never had a competition take so much out of me mentally and emotionally, and I have never given so much physically. On day one following my 400 Free prelim I lost feeling and movement in my entire left arm, I was terrified, this wasn’t how competition was supposed to begin. I spent the day in sports med trying to regain control of my arm, trying to regain movement as I was looking towards my 100m Fly the following day. I didn’t touch the water following my 400 Free, not even to cool down, I couldn’t, I couldn’t even wheel myself let alone swim. By the following day I was able to get control and feeling back and I swam my 100 Fly in one of the best times in my career. My mind, my heart, every ounce of me refused to let me body give up. Each day was a fight with my own body, some were more successful than others, but regardless I never stopped, I never gave up, I fought. It is that fight, that determination, the will and passion that make me proud. I may not have returned to the States a Paralympic medalist from these Games but I have learned that there is far more to the journey than medals.
Following the London 2012 Paralympic Games I returned home a Gold and Bronze medalist and although I am proud of those medals, I do not think I have had a moment in my career where I have been more proud of myself than I was following my race last week, a race that I placed 5th in. Medals don’t define performance, they don’t define the fight, or the journey… Having been on both sides, medalist and non medalist I can say that regardless of the medal there is nothing that beats going a personal best time, a time that I haven’t even gotten close to since 2010, a time I have only dreamed about being able to come close to and then looking up, seeing front and center in the front row my family, a row filled with my parents, my fiancé, my sisters, my future mother and father-in-law and my soon to be sister-in-law and then, as I looked over right in front of me was my coach, standing in the aisle in the stands with both hands in the air and tears in his eyes. That moment, it cannot be defined by a medal because there is no medal that makes that feeling, right then any better than it already was.
So here I am, following my second Paralympic Games and no, I am not a medalist from these Games but that doesn’t matter, it might to the rest of the world, but for me I have finally realized that my career isn’t defined by medals, it is defined by the fight, the heart, the passion, the grit, the determination, the journey and most of all, the community, the very people that gave me the courage and strength to fight for this dream in the first place. Now, as I reflect on Rio, a new dream is born, my dream of Tokyo 2020 and the best part of this dream is it isn’t predicated on what color medal I want to win in Tokyo, this dream is about the journey. Like I said, while we sit back and focus on our dreams life continues on and as badly as I want to make this dream come true, I also want to enjoy life. I want to enjoy marrying my best friend in December, I want to travel the world, I want to build my career outside of the pool, I want to start a family and yes, I want to become a 3 time Paralympian! The beauty is, who is to say you can’t do it all and enjoy the journey along the way?