Hannah Aspden has the powerful shoulders and unmistakable composure of any elite swimmer you’ll find. But she doesn’t have the swagger of an athlete who’s used to standing on the podium and being in the spotlight yet.
In fact, the 16-year-old from Raleigh really isn’t comfortable yet with all the attention.
Aspden blushes when asked how it feels being called one of the top athletes to watch at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Charlotte this weekend. She’s one of the youngest female swimmers vying for one of 21 spots on the team that will compete in Brazil this summer.
“It is thrilling. There’s so much energy at this pool and in the stands, with all my teammates,” Aspden says incredulously.
That she’s had to work harder than most other teenage swimmers to reach this level of competition doesn’t seem to faze Aspden, who was born without her left leg.
Doctors don’t exactly know what caused it. Nothing unusual showed up on the ultrasound, says Aspden’s mother, Jennifer. Aspden learned to swim when she was 4 because she was determined to go in the deep end of the pool at the local YMCA.
She was 10 when she competed in her first swim meet. It was there she met Elizabeth Stone, a retired Paralympic swimming gold medalist who Aspden says has acted as a mentor and inspiration. A rare condition left Stone’s left right leg about half the length of her left, so she swam in the same Paralympic classification as Aspden does, S9.
“I still have the USA cap she gave me with her name on it,” Aspden says.
Aspden says she ditched her prosthetic leg for crutches in fifth grade when she grew out of the prosthetic. Trying to keep it on became too uncomfortable.
Aspden makes up the strength in her arms. In a sense, her forearm crutches provide a constant extra upper body workout, powering each step she takes.
The rest of her strength comes from the 15 hours she spends training each week with the YMCA of the Triangle Area (YOTA) Swim Team – two hours each day in the pool, followed by half-hour workouts on dry land, six days a week.
Aspden considers the 100-meter backstroke, set for Saturday, her strongest event, despite the fact that sicknesses interrupted her training over the past eight months. She has dysautonomia, which means that her autonomic nervous system is not working properly. It causes issues with blood pressure, circulation, digestion, tremors, heart rate and more.
“I’m just here to have fun,” says Aspden, who has the second-fastest time for the 200-meter backstroke of any female swimmer in her classification in the world this year.
This weekend, she’s also competing in the 400-meter freestyle, the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle events.
Coming to Charlotte for the 2016 Paralympic Trials is literally hitting close to home for Aspden.
A Raleigh native, she says four generations of her family members from around North Carolina are in Charlotte to support her this weekend. Her father spent part of his childhood in Charlotte, and Aspden, a rising high school junior, has looked at Queens University for college.
Aspden transferred last year to from Millbrook High in Raleigh to Leesville Road because, she says, Leesville Road is more accommodating when she needs to miss school for meets and leave earlier in the day for practice.
Aspden’s intensity makes you forget she turned 16 only last month.
To get her driver’s license, Aspden tries to squeeze in some of her required 60 hours of driving practice when she’s not in school or swimming. She also loves going to “Avengers” movies and to Milton’s Pizza and Pasta with her family to celebrate after a meet.
Aspden’s not eager to get ahead of herself when she talks about goals for the weekend. It would be exciting enough just to be in Rio, she says. But if she does make the team, “Medalling would be really great.”