Piper Sadowski Keeps Climbing The Ranks, With The Parapan Am Games As The Next Step

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Piper Sadowski at the Citi Para Swimming World Series USA, in April 2023. (Photo by Laura Wolff)

The outside world sees Piper Sadowski swimming faster and faster.

Still relatively new to the higher levels of Para swimming, the teenager appeared in — and won medals at — her first U.S. championships last December.

Now, the high school senior from East Grand Rapids, Michigan, is off to experience international competition as part of Team USA at the 2023 Parapan American Games, which begin Friday in Santiago, Chile.

But if you ask her what this swimming success means, Sadowski thinks about it in terms of more elemental things: Friends. And fun.

“I just go do it. I know I get nervous, and I can mess up, but it’s OK,” said Sadowski, who was born with a cognitive impairment that her family figured out as she grew into her toddler years. “I think the best part of being at the swim meets is meeting the other swimmers and making new friends. I like that a lot, because having a lot of friends swimming makes everything more fun. Swimmers are really nice.”

Sadowski is the middle of three girls and found her place in an athletic family. She enjoyed swimming with her younger sister but struggled to be competitive because of her size and strength as a child.

“I know it was tough for her to see her (younger sister) Dani getting to swim in ways she couldn’t, but Piper kept going, she’s always been really determined to win,” mom Kelly Sadowski said. “She stayed with it, and things worked out.”

Piper Sadowski’s determination and talent was spotted by Alexander Brinks of Grand Rapids Aquatics club program, who told the family she should be slotted with kids her own age … and looking toward Para swimming.

Everything changed three years ago with that advice, as the Sadowskis switched clubs and have stayed with Brinks. Piper started swimming more yardage, working on technique and doing conditioning. Consequently, her freestyle game also picked up. She holds three individual S14 American records (in the 400, 800 and 1,000 free) and was part of two S14 American record mixed relays (4x100 free, and 4x100 medley). She traveled to Vichy, France, over the summer, to compete in the Virtus Global Games, where she won bronze in the 1,500 free.

Now Brinks is working on elevating his Para swimming coaching certifications so he can be with Sadowski as she moves deeper into the international levels of competition.

“I like Coach Alex a lot. He helps me and gives me advice,” said Sadowski, 18, who also swims for her Grand Rapids Christian High School team. She attends the mainstream, private high school through an inclusion program with assistance of an aide.

Speed drives Sadowski, as the shorter, sprint events were her start in the sport. She’s now branching out to longer races as she gets stronger and more confident.

“I like to swim fast,” she said. “Sometimes when I get nervous, I swim really fast. I get in the water and go fast, because then I can be done with my race. But I want to win it too.”

Swimming is turning from a fun hobby into a serious pursuit for Sadowski, as she is looking to attend college and swim in a competitive adaptive program. And she has being part of a Paralympic Games on the big dreams list.

But first, she has a trip to Santiago to represent Team USA for the first time. The whole Sadowski family will go to the Chilean capital to share their star swimmer’s adventure and also to vacation. Seeing the moments of Sadowski representing Team USA and competing on a bigger stage will be emotional, Kelly said.

“I really hope she can put up good times, maybe drop some time — she has been working really hard to prepare for this,” Kelly said. “I hope she has a great time in the village, makes new friends and enjoys meeting the other members of the U.S. team. The Para community is so amazing, and I love all the positive things we have already experienced.

“I think we are all excited for her to get to do this. We just want her to have fun. I think she will.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She has written for since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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