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Student trains for Paralympics

Meghan Wons | Friday, December 1, 2006

Sophomore Ashley Nashleanas hasn’t let the fact that she was born blind interfere with her vision – her sights are set on making the U.S. Paralympic swim team for the summer 2008 games in Beijing, China.

Nashleanas has been swimming for a decade, and at just 20 years old, she has already competed in the Paralympic Games – the second-largest sporting event in the world, behind the Olympics. She swam the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, as well as the 100-meter backstroke at the summer 2004 games in Athens.

She was just a junior in high school at the time, making her “one of the youngest members of the U.S. swim team,” she said. While participants in the Paralympics may be visually impaired or blind like Nashleanas, competing athletes’ disabilities range from amputation to multiple sclerosis to cerebral palsy.

Nashleanas began her swimming career free of family pressure – she doesn’t come from a family of swimmers. Rather, she first began the sport because “I thought swimming was fun and that I’d give it a try,” she said.

Nashleanas’ competitive spirit has kept her focused on her goals, and she has been training hard in the pool – “usually five to six days a week, three miles a day” – in order to be prepared for the April 2008 Paralympic trials.

She hopes to qualify in the 100 back and perhaps the 400 freestyle, and said she prefers swimming longer distances over sprints.

When she is logging so much time and distance in the pool, Nashleanas said she appreciates the occasional practice with fellow hopeful Paralympic swimming competitor, second year political science graduate student James Fetter. Nashleanas said while she and Fetter have very different schedules, they both relish the opportunity to work out together.

Fetter and Nashleanas are both working with Irish Aquatics master’s coach Annie Sawicki, Nashleanas said.

Nashleanas said the master’s swim team provides Notre Dame students, faculty, alumni and local community members with the opportunity to swim competitively.

Notre Dame’s Office for Students with Disabilities supports Nashleanas’ swimming by providing her with “tappers” for both practice and competition. The tappers stand at each end of her swimming lane. Using a pole with a tennis ball attached, they tap her head or shoulder at the appropriate time so she knows when to make her turn or to touch the wall, Nashleanas said.

She said this was the only modification she could think of that she needed as a blind swimmer.

Balancing school work with her tough training schedule is “difficult, but possible,” she said.

“The biggest challenge is just working through practice when you’re tired,” Nashleanas said. “But if you really want it, you’ve got to go for it.”