Historic Duel In The Pool Was A Weekend To Remember For Para Swimmers
by Alex Abrams
Jamal Hill celebrates winning a relay at the 2022 Duel in the Pool. (Photo: Getty Images)
McKenzie Coan remembers watching on TV as her childhood hero, four-time Olympic silver medalist Kara Lynn Joyce, competed at Duel in the Pool.
Coan thought Joyce looked so cool going head-to-head against some of the world’s top swimmers.
“I actually grew up watching Duel in the Pool,” recalled Coan, a three-time Paralympic swimmer who has earned six medals, including four golds. “And I always thought how cool it is to be those elite athletes who are chosen to go compete against each other.”
Last month, Coan joined Jamal Hill, Noah Jaffe and Lizzi Smith as the first U.S. Para swimmers to ever compete at Duel in the Pool when the eighth edition of the event was held between Team USA and Australia in Sydney. The meet featuring unique racing formats had featured only able-bodied swimmers since it was started in 2003 as a highly anticipated showdown between the U.S. and an international swimming powerhouse.
The four members of the U.S. Paralympics Swimming national team welcomed the opportunity to show on a large stage that they deserve to be included with the world’s top swimmers, Olympians or otherwise.
Coan said she cried when she received the good news. All four Americans were quick to accept the invitation, Hill recalled.
“Literally me and the other three people had the same reaction. We all replied to the email within five minutes, four different people,” said Hill, a 2020 Paralympic bronze medalist. “And so any professional person who knows how emails work knows that’s a big deal.”
Team USA built a 13-point lead heading into the final day of the meet on Aug. 21, and the Americans celebrated after withstanding a late rally by the Australians to earn a 309-284 win at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre.
It was the eighth consecutive win for the U.S. at the prestigious meet, including four times against Australia and another four versus a European team.
Coan said she had heard before the meet that the Americans weren’t considered the favorites to win and that there was a chance they could lose to Australia. She admitted she felt pressure to win and told Smith, her 2020 Paralympic teammate and roommate in Sydney, about it.
“I remember looking at her, and I go, ‘OK, first off, I don’t want to lose because the U.S. has never lost,’” Coan said. “But also, I want to go out there and I want to make a good impression on the able-bodied swimming world and show them, especially in the United States, that it is time for Para and able-bodied athletes to start competing alongside each other.
“I want them to see us as equal, elite counterparts to themselves.”
Hill, meanwhile, arrived at Duel in the Pool following a whirlwind past few months. Australia was the latest stop on his world tour.
Hill has traveled around the globe since winning a pair of silver medals in mid-June at the 2022 world championships in Madeira, Portugal. He has worked to spread the word about his foundation, Swim Up Hill, which has a goal of teaching 1 million people how to swim.
Since the world championships, Hill has gone from Portugal and France to Colombia, where he spent a month establishing a swimming program and learning to speak Spanish. He then traveled to the Cayman Islands, where he earned his scuba diving certification.
Hill returned to his hometown of Los Angeles for only four days before it was time to catch another flight to Australia.
“I really hadn’t been home since Portugal, so this was close to coming up on my third or fourth month not having been home,” Hill said. “So I just prioritized my training while I was away, while I was traveling the world, and also just knowing that Duel in the Pool is meant to be a fun thing.
“Like of course you want to do well. There’s TVs, but we’re here to have fun. Also, I’m a real big meet swimmer. Like when the lights are on, when the cameras are on, I know how to show up. In that respect, I didn’t have any worries.”
Hill said “the biggest treat” for him in Sydney was getting to race with NC State swimmer David Curtiss when the mixed class/able-bodied freestyle relay made its debut at Duel in the Pool.
Curtiss traveled to Colombia to train with Hill a few months before the meet. Hill had invited his friend to join him in South America, but he never imagined they’d soon get to be members on the same relay team.
Ohio State’s Amy Fulmer swam the first leg for the Americans in the relay, which paired able-bodied swimmers with Para swimmers. Hill followed Fulmer in the pool.
“She had her work cut out for her. She did pretty good. She touches the wall. Australia touches the wall,” Hill said. “Australia goes off the block almost a full second before I do, which is a lot in the 50 meters. And dude, I hit that water and I just mow this guy down.”
Hill managed to cut into Australia’s early lead, and then Smith helped the Americans pull ahead on the third leg. Hill said Curtiss had a one-second head start when he entered the pool to swim the anchor leg, and Curtiss closed out the win for the U.S.
“That (relay) was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. That, to me, felt very real that the bridge between Para swimming and able-bodied swimming in the United States has finally been lifted,” Coan said.
“In that moment, to me, that was like a merging moment and that showed me that we have a real promise in the future to be joined and paired up with them again swimming as one Team USA.”
It was a forgone conclusion that the U.S. would win Duel in the Pool even before the final race started. As Coan watched the last event, she thought about her swimming career and how it felt like it had come full circle.
“I grew up as a USA Swimming member. I competed against able-bodied swimmers my entire life. I swam on a Division I college team (Loyola University Maryland),” Coan said. “I’ve always swam against able-bodied swimmers, and not in any one of those circumstances have I been able to score points alongside able-bodied swimmers.”
Coan said it was a special moment for her when Team USA won Duel in the Pool. It felt almost like when she has stood on the podium at one of her three Paralympics to receive a gold medal.
However, instead of winning medals, the Americans were given a championship trophy for beating Australia. Hill thought it was a nice touch.
“One of the dopest things is we got a trophy. In swimming, we never get trophies, right?” Hill said, laughing. “So that was really dope, to have a trophy, a championship trophy to lift up, it was lit. It was a lot of fun.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.