Hannah Aspden Can Tell A Life Story With Just Her Magnet Collection
by Al Daniel
Hannah Aspden approaches the starting blocks at the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships. (Photo: Ralf Kuckuck)
The 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, Portugal, gave Hannah Aspden and her U.S. teammates a bonding experience they never expected.
Aspden arrived in Madeira, an archipelago off the coast of Morocco, as a two-time Paralympian coming off her college commencement at the Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. While attempting to adapt to postgraduate life, Aspden joined her fellow veterans on the national team along with several new faces braced for their first plunge into international competition. Despite their varying backgrounds, they had made the same team for the same purpose.
“Everyone’s in a different kind of place,” Aspden, 22, said. “So I think we all bonded over, ‘We’ve all worked hard to be here, let’s make the most of it, be the best we can, support each other as a team.’”
The Americans left Madeira with 24 golds, good for second among all nations, and third overall with 40 medal finishes. Aspden — coming off two Paralympic gold medals in Tokyo — settled for one silver in Madeira.
But it wasn’t the results in the pool that made the trip for many of the U.S. swimmers. Rather, it was the way the team connected that left a greater impact on many of the athletes, including Aspden. For that, she commemorated the trip with a Madeira-themed magnet for the whiteboard peering over her bedroom desk.
There it joined, among others, a boomerang and a turtle whose heart-shaped shell depicts the Cairns seaside cityscape, signifying her two Australian excursions. Next to them, a Copenhagen postcard with the city’s name printed in its Danish spelling “København” below one of its trademark downtown canals. The collection also includes two separate spellings of Minnesota in lively lettering.
For most international competitions, you can find Aspden scoping out any given airport giftshop, aiming to add to her ever-growing collection of trinkets. However, it’s much more than a random assortment of items. Aspden’s display denotes everything she’s done to capitalize on her athletic prowess thanks to the existence of global Para swimming.
“These are trips and experiences that so few people get to have,” she said. “If I wasn’t born different, I wouldn’t have had a lot of these experiences.”
Aspden was born with congenital hip disarticulation and has no left leg, but that never stopped her from participation in sports. Her experiences with swimming started in her native North Carolina when Aspden was 8 years old, and by age 13 she had made the national team. Along the way, her mother, Jennifer, helped start the magnet custom after Hannah’s first event with the national team in Minneapolis. She was an aspiring Paralympian who could not go places without a guardian.
Aspden’s resilience has never been in question, but it was especially evident when she was 16. In November 2015, a dysautonomia infection threatened her quest toward her first Paralympics. The next year, she felt the resultant postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) while pushing through trials, and into the 2016 Games in Rio.
A subsequent two-month grind to restore her A-game yielded bronze medals in the 100-meter backstroke and 34 pt. 4x100-meter medley relay, plus a rewarding glance at her proud parents in the bleachers.
“(It was) my best time since getting sick,” she said. “I proved to myself that I could do it and I could come back from that.”
A green-and-blue magnet bearing the logos of the Rio Games represents everything Aspden did to reach that point.
She still grapples with residual POTS. But her Rio souvenirs forever represent a victory over the symptoms, as well as every magnet she has logged since then.
When Minneapolis hosted the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in 2021, she gave her first magnet to a neighbor. Aspden was an undergraduate dealing with POTS and two-time Paralympic bronze medalist seeking an upgrade.
Partial to magnets depicting local cityscapes, Aspden got an inspiring glimpse of Tokyo out of her hotel.
“It was really beautiful,” she said, “especially at night.”
Inspired by the glamour, Aspden put on a dream performance of her own in Tokyo, with her first two Paralympic golds in the same events in which she had won bronze medals in Rio. So before flying home, she purchased a magnet framing the host city’s name around a blue backdrop highlighted by mountains, cherry blossoms and the Tokyo skyline.
More than anything, that magnet evokes the same intangible pleasure as Madeira. With the COVID-19 pandemic barring guests in Tokyo, Aspden said that was where she and her teammates “became each other’s family and support system.”
That system is for keeps. But with April’s World Para Swimming World Series coming up in Minneapolis, new and old themes are very much alive.
Aspden will plunge into the University of Minnesota’s pool a third time, even more traveled and experienced than before.
After that, she could scout gift shops in the Twin Cities independently, but plans on going with Jennifer, her original support system and originator of this ritual.
“I haven’t gotten to take a whole lot of trips with my mom lately,” Aspden said.