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Hard Work In The Pool And The Classroom Has Helped Ahalya Lettenberger Figure Out What’s Next

by Al Daniel

Ahalya Lettenberger competes at the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, Portugal. (Photo: Ralf Kuckuck)

As Ahalya Lettenberger approaches her commencement later this year at Rice University in Texas, she is grateful for clear goals and a new roadmap to get there. “What’s next?” hasn’t always been an easy question for the 21-year-old to answer.

 

Lettenberger plans heavy, and her next few months certainly reflect that. She’s currently training for April’s trials for the Para swimming world championships, which start on July 31 in Manchester, Great Britain.

 

In doing so, Lettenberger’s schedule includes eight weekly workouts in the pool — including two on Mondays and Fridays — and weight room sessions twice a week. All of this is, of course, on top of her studies in what is Lettenberger’s final semester at Rice.

 

Instead of being overwhelmed, Lettenberger has thrived after reorganizing her own life. She lacked that luxury the last time she reached new heights.

 

Halfway through her undergraduate journey, Lettenberger made her Paralympic debut in Tokyo, winning silver in the 200-meter individual medley SM7. It was a fitting follow-up to the silver she won in the 400 freestyle at her world championships debut in 2019.

 

However, encores come fast for Lettenberger. After shifting back to student-athlete mode after Tokyo, she hit a snag translating her early success back to the international stage. It became too difficult for her to balance both studies and competitions going on at the same time.

 

“I definitely didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped at worlds,” Lettenberger said of last June’s world championships in Madeira, Portugal. “A big challenge for me last year was kind of finding that motivation again.”

 

The result was a bronze in the 400 freestyle, along with fourth place in the 200 IM. After the competition, Lettenberger took a swimming sabbatical, trying to replenish her competitive spirit.

 

During the break, her studies kept her occupied. Lettenberger is majoring in bioengineering and minoring in global health technologies.

 

The rigorous schedule only added to Lettenberger’s craving for helping others. Through her minor, Lettenberger has studied at the Rice 360 Institute for Global Health Technologies, which merges minds from STEM and humanities studies to foster equitable access to healthcare worldwide.

 

Through Rice 360, she has learned to design 3D printed prosthetic arms, one exciting example of low-cost, groundbreaking equipment. Lettenberger’s passion for this technology has stemmed from her own life experiences with arthrogryposis amyoplasia, a muscular disorder that affects her lower limbs. 

 

“I view my disability as a part of me that isn’t who I am, but is a part of me that contributes to who I am, and I wouldn’t be who I am without it,” Lettenberger said. “I want to give that back through technology.”

 

That long-term humanitarian objective was key, Lettenberger says, to “reminding myself of what it’s all about” when she was slammed in school. Defying the sophomore slide, she surged to the Rice honor roll and a Conference USA Commissioner’s Academic Medal in 2021.

 

She repeated that feat as a junior, this time adding Rice’s Margie E. Sass Scholar Athlete of the Year Award to her resume. Meanwhile, she posted a new American short course record, with a time of 5:48.60 in the 400-yard IM S7.

 

“Swimming is my huge passion, but I think knowing that it’s not everything also helps me to continue loving it and be better and better,” Lettenberger said. “I just want to be the best at everything that I love.”

 

It was her disappointment following that 2021-22 campaign that “lit a new fire underneath” Lettenberger. And this fire burned in all aspects of her life.

 

In February, she returned to Rice inspired. A month later, Lettenberger was one of four women swimmers from Rice on the Academic All-District 7 roster, and the only repeat in that quartet. The press release highlighted her 3.97 grade point average.

 

Before that, in her final dual meet on Jan. 28, the Owls shocked crosstown nemesis, the University of Houston, 159-135. It left the swimmer with newfound confidence.

 

“That’s a lot of racing to do in one session of a meet,” Lettenberger said of the 90-minute whirlwind. “I really feel like I’m at a level that I haven’t been at before.”

 

Now, Lettenberger is using her accomplishments in the water to further inspire her work in the classroom. The Medical College Admission Test is next on her list. With every lesson learned as an undergraduate, Lettenberger is now more organized and poised to pursue a chance at the upcoming Paris Games in 2024.

 

“That mindset of being process-focused and also just enjoying every step of the way,” she said. “That will definitely continue forward in everything I do.”

Al Daniel is a freelance features writer and contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter @WriterAlDaniel.

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