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Chasing Big Dreams Never Stopped For Christie Raleigh Crossley, No Matter The Obstacle

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Christie Raleigh Crossley competes in backstroke at the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships. (Photo by Ralf Kuckuck/USOPC)

Olympic dreams were never far off during Christy Raleigh Crossley’s elite swimming career.


And with a resume that includes high school state champion in Florida, All-America honors at Florida State and training with stars such as Michael Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, it can seem as if Raleigh Crossley was destined for a big stage.


However, the story has never quite played out as planned. A series of neurological health issues, stemming from the aftermath of being hit by a car in 2007, forced the swimmer to redefine everything and now Raleigh Crossley, 36, is on a different path, though one just as challenging — aiming for the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.


A major steppingstone on that journey took place this month, when Raleigh Crossley (who uses they/her pronouns) competed at the 2023 World Para Swimming Championships in Manchester, England, winning her first career world title in the 100-meter backstroke S9.


“I really see this part of my journey as full circle, because swimming has always been such an important part of my life,” said Raleigh Crossley, a native of Toms River, New Jersey. “I was at a high level with this, able-bodied, and then everything fell apart. I am getting used to my body, accepting that I cannot be what I was before.


“I am no longer that person. I’m in a wheelchair now. But swimming, and now aiming for something like the Paralympic Games, are very much motivating me. This brings me so much joy to be back training and competing, even on the days where things are hard.”


Raleigh Crossley’s able-bodied swimming resume is impressive. The swimmer then known as Christie Raleigh was a four-time high school state champion in Florida before enrolling at Florida State, where they earned All-America status and an ACC Freshman of the Year Award in 2006. Later, after transferring to Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, they won an NCAA Div. III national title in the butterfly.


However, her trajectory changed after being hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street in 2007. The blunt force trauma triggered a non-cancerous tumor to start growing. It was undiagnosed for years, despite Raleigh Crossley’s left foot drooping and other forms of weakness in her legs and arms. Nothing lasted long enough to seem serious.


Raleigh Crossley still swam at a high level and made training plans with hopes of qualifying for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Olympics. They didn’t make the first two Games, but felt her swimming was progressing well enough for a try at Tokyo.


However, everything changed again in December 2018.


After a day of skiing with her children, Raleigh Crossley started feeling off on the way home. Her tumor was bleeding in her brain, which eventually led to paralysis. They had surgery in early 2019, and the tumor was successfully removed.


However, Raleigh Crossley soon realized her body was not returning to full strength. There was weakness on her left side, and lingering neurological issues. Swimming, once the most natural thing to do, now felt clumsy.


“I was so depressed. Swimming at the Olympics was never going to happen,” Raleigh Crossley said. “I was broken from thinking about that. Swimming means so much to me. When I needed to see it the most, I learned of the Paralympics. It was like a light went on for me in the dark.”


Watching the Tokyo Paralympics on TV revealed the new future, this time as a Para athlete. Once they received a classification, life was about swimming for big goals again.


In the pool, Raleigh Crossley has already piled up some impressive results. Last December, they won two events at that national championships to earn a spot on the national team, while Raleigh Crossley’s winning time in the 100-meter butterfly S9 set a new American record.


A few months later, Raleigh Crossley did one better, this time setting a world record in the 50-meter backstroke S9 (a non-Paralympic event) at a meet in Italy.


Now the world championships will be a key litmus test for Raleigh Crossley and all the U.S. swimmers to see where they stack up against the world’s best one year out from the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.


In some ways, this is exactly where Raleigh Crossley dreamed of being.


Some things are different this time around, though. Raleigh Crossley’s life also includes her husband and three children. Her body changes from day to day, sometimes feeling good, but also coming with days of weakness and pain.


“I can’t lie, sometimes I am so frustrated, because I know how I used to be able to swim, and I am not there,” Raleigh Crossley said. “When I had my first (Para) meets, I looked at the times I was swimming, and I was mad. I did those when I was 12. Then I check myself, because this is not the same body that did those times.


“I have three children, and I want them to know I am giving my best to compete where I am. I am trying hard and giving my best with my abilities. That is something that is really driving me right now.”


The other big motivator for Raleigh Crossley is to increase exposure and support for Paralympians. They’ve been part of the elite able-bodied teams and have seen the attention and financial support possible in the sport. Raleigh Crossley wants to be an outspoken advocate to take everything to the next level.


“There is no reason why Paralympians should not get the same media coverage, sponsor support, staffing and opportunities to compete — zero reason,” they said. “It’s time to take down all those walls for good. I want to be part of that change, because whatever platform I get from my swimming now, I want people to hear these stories.


“I was ignorant of what the Paralympics were until I had my wake-up call with Tokyo. I had no idea, and now that I do, I want to do that for everybody else. I’m not here to be your inspo porn. I am here to compete, set records and do my best.”


Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.


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