Julia Hixson Had “Nowhere To Go But Up” After First Swim Meet, And She’s Done Just That
by Karen Price
Julia Hixson prepares for a race at U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in December 2021. (Photo: Joey Kirkman)
Julia Hixson swam in her very first competitive meet six years ago at the age of 11, and she still remembers it well.
“It was a train wreck,” said the 17-year-old from Painesville, Ohio, laughing. “I had a lot of fun, but my goggles fell off and filled up with water, and then I use crutches and my crutch actually broke in half on deck. So yeah, it was a crazy meet, but I had so much fun. Nowhere to go but up!”
That is certainly the direction in which Hixson is moving. After competing at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships for the first time ever last December, Hixson recently won two state high school Para swimming titles and will compete at the World Para Swimming World Series next month in Indianapolis.
Hixson was born without a hip socket or right femur bone and is missing most of her right leg. She found her way to the pool via swim lessons at her local YMCA, where instructors saw how much she loved the sport and later suggested she join the swim team.
For most of her life, Hixson has only competed with and against able-bodied swimmers. Her freshman year of high school, however, the Ohio High School Athletic Association added two Para events — the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard backstroke — to its district tournament schedule. It was there that she caught the eye of coaches who mentioned the idea of competing in national Para meets, so Hixson signed up to compete at the Bill Keating Jr. Memorial Cincinnati Para-Swimming Open in Cincinnati.
That was in 2020, however, and everything shut down before she had the chance.
It wasn’t until last year that Hixson again had the opportunity to swim against other Para athletes, this time with the two high school events added not only to the district tournament calendar but also the state championship schedule. She won the 100 backstroke and was second in the 50 freestyle. Then in May 2021, she was able to finally make her debut competing against Para athletes from across the country in Cincinnati.
She made her debut at nationals in December in Greensboro, North Carolina, and her first race was the 50-meter backstroke.
“My very first event was against (Paralympic medalists) Hannah Aspden and McKenzie Coan, and all these girls I watched on TV last summer and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, here I am, my first big event ever and I’m against these guys,’” she said. “I was like, ‘What if I go in and I just drown or lose or something bad happens to me and I embarrass myself?’”
Hixson had no reason to worry. She made the multi-class “A” final along with Paralympians including Aspden, Coan, Julia Gaffney, Elizabeth Marks and McClain Hermes.
Although she enjoys all her events, Hixson said the 100 backstroke is by far her favorite.
“I’m missing my right leg so finding a pattern for kicking, a rhythm I guess you could say, is really difficult,” she said. “But somehow for backstroke it’s always been easier to match my kick with my stroke. Also the muscles I use swimming backstroke are the same I use when I walk on my crutches. I feel like (backstroke) is definitely something I excel at compared to the other events I swim.”
Being in North Carolina for nationals gave her the chance to meet and get some advice from Aspden — who’s also missing a leg and is the same classification as Hixson — and national team coach Nathan Manley.
“It was night and day for me,” Hixson said. “My coaches (in Ohio) are amazing at what they do and they always help me so much, but talking to Nathan, he actually knew how my body worked better than I did. He was like, ‘OK, you’re struggling with this, here’s what you need to do,’ and it helped so much. It was great for me.”
Hixson recently competed at the Ohio state championships, where she defended her title in the Para 100 backstroke and won her first title in the 50 freestyle. She lowered her personal best time in both events and was also less than a second off hitting the national emerging standard in the backstroke.
Hixson’s teams, both high school and club, are like family, she said, and part of what she loves so much about swimming. She hopes to swim in college, make the national team and, beyond that, try for the Paralympic team in 2024 if all goes well.
And she still finds just as much enjoyment from competing now as she did when she was 11 in her very first meet.
“I just love seeing improvement, noticing when I’m getting stronger, practicing continuously and noticing how it’s affecting my stroke and pushing me to become better,” said Hixson, who said that no one pushes her harder than she pushes herself. “I really love seeing progress and in swimming you do see that a lot, even if it’s a small time drop. You see how much better you’re getting and that your hard work is paying off. And I just love competing. I love the atmosphere and just the way it makes me feel after I race, even if it’s a bad race. I feel privileged to be able to compete and it just makes me very happy.”