Family, Friends And Faith Have Driven Evan Wilkerson In Swimming Career
by Raymond T. Rivard
Evan Wilkerson’s journey as a Para swimmer has been forged through his love of swimming and his appreciation of others.
In fact, it’s his family, his friends, his faith and his coaches that he appreciates most when talking about his inclusion to the 33-person U.S. swim team that will compete at the 2023 Parapan American Games beginning Nov. 17 in Santiago, Chile.
Blind since his birth, Wilkerson notes that he’s literally reliant on others each time he gets in the pool. Because they can’t see the walls, blind swimmers have “tappers” at the end of the lanes to help them know when they’re getting close.
Learning that role has been just one of many areas that his parents, Traci and Gene, have supported Wilkerson. The 17-year-old from Wake Forest, North Carolina, describes them as his biggest influences and cheerleaders when it comes to his development as a swimmer and, most importantly, as a person.
“My parents, they have been really huge in my swimming career,” Wilkerson said.
In addition to tapping for him, his parents have supported Evan through all the challenges he’s had to negotiate as a disabled swimmer.
“My mom has always driven me to practice, taken me to 5 a.m. CrossFit halfway across town, gone to all my swim meets, tapping at practice,” he said.
And his father is also deeply involved, especially when it comes to providing encouragement during difficult times.
“He’s been my second tapper, and he’s always been there for whenever I’m struggling … he’s always helping getting me back on my feet,” Evan said.
“Swimming is hard — it’s not a particularly easy sport. I love doing it, but sometimes we face those challenges, and my dad has kind of been the one behind me just keeping me driving forward through all of that.”
Wilkerson’s career as a Para swimmer began in 2016 after he witnessed that year’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials while on a visit to Charlotte, North Carolina.
“When I saw people like me swimming and getting ready for the Paralympics, I thought, ‘Hey, this is something I can do. I can compete against people like me at the highest levels,’” Wilkerson said. “That really ignited the love of swimming in me.”
Over the coming years, Wilkerson began climbing the ranks and entering bigger competitions, including the 2018 Jimi Flowers Classic Swim Meet in Colorado.
“That was an awesome experience,” he said.
The challenges of swimming longer distances, and in a high altitude, “showed me that this is really what I want to do,” he said. “This is what it’s going to take.”
After switching to a new “more serious” swim team — the New Wave Swim Team in Raleigh — Wilkerson participated in his first Para national championships in 2021. The swimmer has thrived under the no-nonsense direction of his new coach Bradford Hancock, whom he credits with helping him reach this month’s Parapan American Games.
Traveling to South America will be the capstone of Wilkerson’s career thus far, but getting there will be his least favorite part of his journey.
“The only part of the trip I’m not looking forward to is the long flight,” he said. “It’s 11 hours.”
But once there, he has high expectations for the meet, as well as a healthy dose of perspective.
“This will be the biggest of my career up to now. I can barely describe it,” he said. “I’m really excited to go down there, represent my country and try to win some races. If I win, great. If I don’t, I got down there and was able to represent my country and I gave it my best shot.”
His biggest goal this month, he said, is achieving a national team standard in the 100 backstroke. From there, he’s hoping to put himself in position to qualify for the Paralympic Games — though he admits next year’s Paralympics in Paris might be premature.
“If I make that I will be surprised,” he said. “There are a lot of athletes. But I want to represent my country and go against the best the world has to offer.”
While his plan is to go on to college — Wilkerson wants to study Christian ministry with the goal to become a pastor or youth pastor — he intends to spend time this coming year at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in hopes of boosting his chances for Paris.
The biggest challenge, he said, is perfecting his swimming technique.
“I can’t see what other people are doing, and the coaches put you through motions and then put you in the pool,” he said.
However, the use of headsets so coaches can talk directly to the swimmer in the water has been a big development.
Wilkerson said getting to this point as a swimmer has been difficult and required him to adapt his mindset. One of the most fulfilling parts, he said, has been working with and helping his teammates.
“Encouraging them has been really fulfilling for me,” he said. “Everyone says that swimming is an individual sport. … No, it’s not. When you get to cheer on your teammates and get to see them grow, that has been a real joy. My friends have gotten really good, and it’s been a great experience for myself, but seeing others grow around me with my encouragement and support has been a real joy for me.”
Raymond T. Rivard is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.