Swimming Was The Safe Option For Grace Nuhfer, And Now It’s Taking Her To Chile
by Karen Price
A few years into Grace Nuhfer’s life as a competitive swimmer, her coach told the team that not everyone was going to be an Olympic swimmer and that the important thing was that they all have fun.
While that was sage advice, Nuhfer wasn’t buying it.
“Little me was like, ‘Nope, I’m going to the Olympics,’” she said. “Don’t you worry, I’m all over this. I must have been 10 or something like that. The Olympics was always like, yeah, I’m going to get there. No problem.”
Little her was onto something.
Nuhfer is about to make her international Para swimming debut competing for Team USA at the Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile, later this month, and she’s hoping the Paralympics might be in her future as well.
“I’m just excited and eager to go there and be in the moment and take everything in,” she said. “I think no matter how I perform, just going there and getting in all these experiences is going to be a success.”
Nuhfer started swimming because as a kid who wanted to be active, it was her safest option.
Both Nuhfer and her younger sister have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of genetic connective tissue disorders that affect the skin, joints and blood vessels and manifests differently in different people. They also both have a rare expression of EDS called Brittle Cornea Syndrome that is only known to affect fewer than two dozen people worldwide. The sisters are visually impaired as a result — Nuhfer said she can make out shapes and colors but is extremely near-sighted — and lived with the fear of their corneas rupturing when they were little.
Even with all the precautions and “living in a bubble,” as Nuhfer described it, her sister’s corneas ruptured when she was just eight years old. She had to have two transplants, but after that their lives became less restricted.
“Everyone was so afraid that anything could make them rupture and take away our vision,” Grace said. “There were so many unknowns that we lived with every day, and there was a lot of fear. But since then, since there was no cause and no one knew why it happened, it broke us free of this cage.”
Still, her eye doctors growing up were explicit: no balls, bats or rackets. Because EDS affects the joints, activities such as track and dance were just too painful. Swimming brought Nuhfer the chance to be active, competitive and comfortable.
Swimming felt good, and Nuhfer was good at it. She swam with the Greenwood Gators club team in Greenwood, Indiana, and in her first meet as a high school freshman she broke the school record in the 100-yard butterfly.
Still a butterfly specialist, Nuhfer is now in her junior year as a member of the swim team at the University of Akron, where she’s majoring in business data analytics with a focus in marketing, and minoring in philosophy/pre-law. New to the Para side of the sport, she got classified as an S13 this summer. In her first Para meet ever in California, Nuhfer hit the “C” standard in the 50-meter freestyle and the “B” standard in the 100-meter butterfly. That qualified her for national team status and earned her a place on the Parapan Ams team.
Nuhfer knows she has a lot to learn about Para swimming, international competition and life as a national team member, and she’s looking forward to learning. She also can’t help but think about her younger self, with all her big goals and dreams, as well as other children like her.
She remembers volunteering back home for a program for visually impaired preschool children and all the parents who’d come to them filled with fears for their children. Families just like hers used to be.
“I remember the conversations with parents who’d talk to me, and I’d say, ‘Yes, I’m in high school,’ and, ‘Yes, I’m on the swim team,’ and ‘Yes, I’m hoping to go to college and swim,’ and the relief that they showed,” she said. “They loved hearing our stories. I was like, ‘I promise you this visual impairment or blindness or whatever adversity it is, is not going to stop them. I promise you.’”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.