Nationals Kicks Off In Orlando With Paris On The Horizon
by Karen Price
For some athletes, this weekend’s U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in Orlando, Florida, will be a chance to measure themselves against others with whom they might be competing for spots in Paris next summer.
For others who may be newer to the sport and perhaps targeting Los Angeles in 2028, it’s a chance to gain valuable racing experience.
But one of the most important things right now, U.S. Paralympics Swimming director Erin Popovich said, is that the qualification period for Paralympic slots ends at the end of January. There are a total of 325 male and 280 female quotas in 141 swimming events for next summer’s Games.
“So all the nations are trying to get as many athletes as high in the rankings as possible,” Popovich said.
This has already been a big year for U.S. Para swimmers. With two major international meets — the world championships and the Parapan American Games — coaches and staff split the top athletes into two groups. Those with the strongest chance of competing in Paris next summer went to the world championships in August, and more of the up-and-coming athletes went to Santiago, Chile, last month to compete at the Parapan American Games.
Both events saw not only strong performances from veterans such as five-time Paralympian Jessica Long and Evan Austin, racing for the first time at a major meet since winning gold at his third Paralympics in Tokyo, but also emerging athletes including Olivia Chambers, Noah Jaffe and Taylor Winnett in their event debuts.
“For sure (seeing breakout performances from event rookies) was the icing on the cake at both worlds and Santiago,” Popovich said. “Both events are high-pressure, high-energy situations, and so it was really awesome to see the newer athletes step up and not only get on the podium, but get on the podium multiple times and really rise to the occasion.”
That includes Chambers, who Popovich said had a “knockout meet.” She was still relatively new to the Para swimming scene when she was named swimmer of the meet at last year’s national championships, and she had a 6-for-6 podium performance at her world championships debut this summer. It also includes Jaffe, another first-timer at the world championships who won his first title and set an American record in the men’s 100-meter freestyle.
“Noah breaking onto the scene and winning the 100 free was definitely one of the highlights for us,” Popovich said. “But we also had Christie Raleigh Crossley, who made her major international debut there and won gold. It’s safe to say we have a lot of top performers who showed their cards a little this year, and it was really exciting to see.”
Both Chambers and Jaffe will be competing this weekend, along with Winnett. She was the most decorated U.S. athlete at the Parapan American Games with seven medals.
Athletes who raced at the world championships were not eligible to compete at the Parapan American Games, so for those who aren’t racing at college this may be the first chance to get back on the blocks at a meet since summer. Or it could be another opportunity to race the long course used at international meets versus the more common short course pools.
This weekend is also another opportunity for less experienced athletes to spend time around Long, McKenzie Coan, Elizabeth Marks, Zach Shattuck, Leanne Smith, Morgan Stickney, Julia Gaffney, Jamal Hill, Lawrence Sapp and other team veterans and Paralympic and world champions.
“I think part of what was so fun about Santiago was that so many of the athletes were first-timers to international competition,” Popovich said. “So with that came a huge opportunity to gain incredibly valuable experience of what a Games is like and, more importantly, they all received and acknowledged the pressure and seized the opportunity to perform, which was really exciting. And the veterans really had the opportunity to perform, but also have an impact on that next generation of athletes and newer swimmers. It was awesome to see how the team came together.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.