Once A Young Phenom, Hannah Aspden Is Now A Team Leader
by Lynn Rutherford
Hannah Aspden has a motto — two, really — that help keep her swimming career on course.
“You control what you can control,” she says. “And do what you can with what you have to work with that day.”
Interviewing Aspden, it’s hard to imagine that the two-time Paralympian, a double swimming gold medalist at the 2020 Tokyo Games, ever strays too far off course. Cheerful and focused, her warm, buoyant personality radiates through the cell phone.
“It’s supposed to be fun, and that’s what I remind people all the time,” Aspden says of competition. “You’ve put in all the work to be there, and (events) are the reward for your hard work. … You put yourself through so much, and now you get to race on the big stage with all your teammates and have your friends and family watch.”
With such a practical and genial outlook, it’s little surprise that Aspden’s teammates elected her, along with Tokyo silver medalist David Abrahams, co-captain of Team USA at the 2023 World Para Swimming Championships in August in Manchester, England.
In a way, it brought her athletic career full circle: In 2016, a 16-year-old Aspden became the youngest U.S. swimmer to medal at the Rio Olympics or Paralympics when she grabbed bronze in her favorite event, the 100-meter backstroke. Now, seven years later, she is an acknowledged leader of the team.
“It meant so much to me that my teammates chose me and look up to me in that way,” she said. “I’ve definitely noticed that in the last few years, my role within the team has shifted a lot. And I’m finally starting to realize that I have been doing this a long time, I’ve had a lot of experiences and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.”
Aspden isn’t kidding. The Raleigh, North Carolina, native, still just 23, has crammed a lot of swimming into the last 15 years. Born without a left leg, she took to the water at age 4 — “I wanted to keep up with my brother,” she said — and, encouraged by parents Jennifer and TJ, began competing in YMCA events a few years later.
At age 13, Aspden made the national team roster. A 2022 graduate of Queens University of Charlotte, where she majored in multimedia storytelling, she swam on the Queens’ team and contributed to several Div. II national titles.
Now, “the new kid” and “youngest medalist” is the veteran who less experienced teammates seek out when they need advice on what to pack, or how to cope with jetlag. She is also able to gauge whether a teammate wants to chat or would rather sit quietly and listen to music.
“I’ve been in this world over half of my life, and I’ve learned a lot and I’ve seen a lot,” Aspden said. “I had a lot of people that were there for me when I was coming in, showed me the ropes and taught me how things went and helped me navigate a lot of situations, because when you’re on these trips, things never go exactly as planned. You have to be flexible.”
Aspden remembers how, when she was a young teen, three-time Paralympian swimmer Elizabeth Stone, winner of three medals at the 2008 and 2012 Games, took time to show her the ropes.
“She actually has the same birthday as me (June 11), 10 years apart,” Aspden said. “At my first meet she gave me one of her Stone ‘USA’ caps, and I still have it. That meant so much to me — she was one of the people that really brought me into the sport and encouraged me a lot.”
Inspired by Stone’s example, Aspden aims to do the same, especially when it comes to relay races. In Tokyo, her backstroke lead-off leg helped Team USA take gold in the 4x100-meter medley.
“It’s always really fun to have a familiar face in the call room and behind the blocks and in the water,” Aspden said. “I try to remind people that you do it because you love it and because it opens doors to all kinds of opportunities and experiences. You shouldn’t walk away from a world championship meet and just be like, ‘Oh, I’m so exhausted.’”
Aspden’s equanimity was put to the test in Manchester. Competing in five events, her best finish came in the 100-meter backstroke, where she placed sixth. As the defending silver medalist in the event, she had hoped for better. Fate intervened when she came down with flu and sinus symptoms that made breathing difficult.
“There were seven days of racing, and on day three of racing, I got really, really sick,” she said. “My main events were on days four through seven, so it makes it very hard to compete to the best of your ability. I was feeling a little bit discouraged. I had felt very confident in my training and my preparation to that point, but sometimes these things that are out of our control just happen.”
And that’s when the mottos kicked in: Control what you can control. Do the best with what you have.
“I was still able to be there in the stands cheering for my team, I was still able to complete my races and give them everything that I had,” Aspden said. “My results are maybe not what I was hoping for, but that's the best that I could do on that day. And that's all any of us can really do.”
Aspden may now be classed as a veteran, but her career is far from done. Her next goal is qualifying for the Paris 2024 Games, and she dreams of capping her career at the Los Angeles 2028 Games.
“Getting into Paralympic swimming when I was 10 was such a blessing,” she said. “I’ve been able to meet so many great people, all with their own stories and lives and journeys, and learn so much from them. Swimming gave me a community. I saw people with disabilities facing their own challenges and doing what they could, with what they have. It was just such an encouragement for me.”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.