Never Give Up: Minnesota Swimmer Aims For Gold In London

August 10, 2012

Anna Eames, Paralympic Games gold and bronze medalist in Beijing 2008. Photo by Evan Taylor.

For swimmer Anna Eames of Golden Valley, Minn., the Olympic Games that wrap up this week in London are just the warm-up act for the main event.

The big show for Eames is the Paralympic Games, which begin Aug. 29 in London. She’ll be trying to repeat her feats from 2008 in Beijing, where she earned gold and bronze medals.

In advance of her latest Olympic quest, Fast Horse chatted with Eames via Facebook.

When did you start swimming?

I was 5 years old. Swimming is one of the only sports I can do without pain because impact is really hard on my leg.

Can you describe the situation with your leg? This was something you were born with?

I was born with fibular hemimelia, which is basically a leg length discrepancy. I have gone through many surgeries to help get the lengths more similar, to avoid back problems. I also have three toes on my right foot, an abnormal right ankle joint, and hip dysplasia, which means my hip is turned out more than normal.

You mentioned swimming relieves that pain more than the other sports. Did you ever have issues growing up as a kid? Perhaps frustrating situations in grade-school?

I tried different sports like soccer, softball, and tennis. I could run for short distances but never far. I never could run the mile in gym class which was frustrating, and I used to be embarrassed about that just because I wanted to be able to do what everyone else did and I felt like I came across as lazy by just walking. Other sports and even “dryland” workouts for swimming were hard because I couldn’t just go on a jog for warm ups or anything. I tried a few times because I really wished I could run, but it is always too painful and I don’t get very far before it starts to be unbearable.

With all this frustration, I think it’s quite extraordinary that you kept pushing through it. I image many people in your situation would have given up. What year did you join the Paralympics, and how did you discover it?

I went to my first Paralympic meet in 2005 because it happened to be at the University of Minnesota, where I was training at the time. My coach thought, “Why don’t we give it a try and see if you would be disabled enough to qualify.” Long story short, I became classified there and swam in my first meet, making the national team with an American record in the 100 Butterfly. I’ve been on the national team ever since.

How old were you in 2005?

I had just turned 15.

Only 15?! That’s incredible. Can you explain the classification process for the Paralympics?

There are 10 classes for physically disabled swimmers: 1 being the most disabled and 10 being the least – and you compete only against your own class. The classification process is very long and confusing. Basically, trained classifiers check your strength, range of motion, and flexibility in, and out of the water, and place you into a class based on a point system.

After your 2005 accomplishments, you kept training and went on to qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008. How many events did you qualify in?

I qualified in the 50 Freestyle, 100 Freestyle, 400 Freestyle, 200 Individual Medley (IM) and the 100 Butterfly.

How did you do in Beijing?

I won Gold in the 100 Butterfly, Bronze in 100 Freestyle, fourth Place in both the 50 Freestyle and 400 Freestyle, and fifth place in the 200 I.M.

Can you describe the emotion that went through you right after you touched the wall and turned your head to look up at the scoreboard?

Well, I started my race super tense and felt like junk. But when I turned at the halfway point, I could see the whole field was even, and I knew I needed to get going! When there were about 15 meters left, I remember thinking, “You did not come all this way not to win”, and I dug deep and finished as hard as I could to the wall. When I finished, I looked up at the scoreboard and saw I had gone a ‘1:09’ and someone else went a ‘1:10’. My mind was so incredibly flustered, I could not think of whether or not a ‘1:09’ was faster than ‘1:10’ or not. I didn’t start celebrating at all, but suddenly I saw my face on the other scoreboard and that’s when I knew I had done it. And the cool thing is, if you watch the race you can see right where I had this “thought” and I start breaking away from the pack. However, the medal ceremony was a whole other story. I was very emotional just knowing I had finally done it and listening to our country’s anthem, playing just for me, was incredible! I just really tried to pay attention to the words and what they really stood for, and how lucky we are as Americans to have the things we do.

Anna Eames finally realizing she won gold. Photo credit: AP Photo/Greg Baker.

After winning Gold in Beijing, you’ve continued to train hard on both the U.S. National Team and for your college program at Gustavus Adolphus College. Being a student athlete can be difficult – how well did you do in school while having to juggle all of this?

I have maintained a cumulative GPA of 3.8, while achieving a 4.0GPA last Fall, and have made it on the Dean’s List for the past five semesters.

Immediately following the end of school this year, you went to the Paralympic Trials in June and qualified for how many events?

I only swam three events this time (50 Freestyle, 100 Freestyle, and 100 Butterfly.) I won all three, and will be swimming each in London.

I’ve noticed the media has really been marketing the Paralympics this year. How has the media’s involvement motivated you for this year’s London Games?

The media has really stepped up in the last four years. It’s awesome to be watching TV and see disabled athletes and teammates getting the recognition they deserve. My teammates have the most inspiring stories and have done some amazing things and its too bad not many people know about them, but it’s evident in the media we’re starting to move in the right direction. That’s been really great.

I saw Coca-Cola’s commercial about Paralympic swimmer, Jessica Long. Do you know her?

Yes I do. Jess has been my teammate for 7 years now. She’s actually one of my best friends- she’s like a sister to me. She’s truly inspiring. Everyone should watch out for her over in London – she’s going to tear it up this year.

Your teammates nominated you as Captain for this year’s London Games. How does it feel to be a leader in one of the most prestigious events in the world?

I’m one of four team captains: there are two for the women’s team and two for the men’s. It is one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me and I’m so honored that my teammates respect me so much and think of me as a leader.

I see you’re a Twitter-fanatic. Who are some of the other athletes you are following on Twitter during these London Games?

I love Twitter! I’m following most of the Olympic swim team: Missy Franklin, Dana Vollmer, Rebecca Soni…a lot of the stars. Jason Lezak. Brendan Hansen.

How can we follow you while you’re in London?

You can follow me @anna_eames.

Before you get behind the starting block, where would we find you 10 minutes before your race?

Well, there are strict rules, and we have to be in the race “ready room” 20 minutes before we swim. You’ll find me there listening to music and messing around, laughing with whoever will talk to me. I dance and sing. I need to be relaxed before I swim. I put in the work already and this is supposed to be fun!

Eames on the podium after being honored by the U.S. National Anthem. Photo credit: Xinhua.

Okay, the buzzer goes off, you dive into the water. What will be going through your head at this point?

Well, in my best races ever, I don’t even remember what I was thinking and barely remember swimming. Hopefully that’s what happens this year. But if not, I’m usually talking to myself, saying positive things like, “You got it and know what to do, stay relaxed.” Otherwise, most likely repeating my race strategy to myself: when I’m going to pick it up, preparing so I hit my turn perfectly, have the right stroke lengths to nail the finish – stuff like that.

Your adventure has been, and continues to be quite inspiring – What kind of motivation would you want to send to the kids all over the world who are experiencing athletic struggles due to physical anomalies?

Never give up. Never let someone tell you that you can’t do something.

Eames is on her way to London, with her first race in just a few weeks. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ding-Xu.