TURNING ADVERSITY INTO TRIUMPH June 2005 by Julie O'Neill
With athletes such as Mikhaila Rutherford, Elizabeth Stone and Jessica Long, the United States has become a rising force in Paralympic swimming.
The former Soviet Union was a sports powerhouse during its decades as a world superpower. However, when the USSR disintegrated about 15 years ago, its sports dominance diminished as well.
In recent years, a new legacy has begun to emerge from the ashes of the former Soviet society: Paralympic sport.
Although inadvertent, the Soviet system was the genesis of many of today's world champion athletes in Paralympic sport. Environmental destruction is prevalent in some areas of the former Soviet Union-air and water pollution, nuclear waste, radiation-and current studies estimate that one in every three children in these areas is born with chronic illnesses or congenital disabilities as a result.
The USA's 2004 Paralympic swimming team is the benefactor of three such athletes-talented young women who left their mark in Athens and who will be a force in Paralympic swimming in the years to come.
Mikhaila Rutherford, a junior at Alameda High School in northern California, returned from the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games with four medals, three of them gold.
Mikhaila's birth mother had lived in a small village 30 kilometers from Chernobyl. After the nuclear disaster there, the government declared that the "safe zone" began beyond 30 kilometers, so the family was evacuated to Minsk, Belarus, where Mikhaila was born prematurely.
Refused by her parents at birth due to her disabilities-cataracts, right below-the-knee amputee, missing fingers and toes-Mikhaila was placed into an orphanage for disabled kids. But Mikhaila refused to act "handicapped," so she was eventually transferred into an orphanage for "regular" kids and was adopted at the age of 4 by her mom, Connie Rutherford.
Mikhaila never walked prior to coming to the United States, but Connie says, "She ran faster on her two knees than the other kids did on their two legs."
From the time that Connie first brought Mikhaila home, she had her in the pool at the local YMCA. Mikhaila loved the water and showed no fear. "Given her disability, I was delighted because it was the best form of exercise for her," Connie says. Mikhaila joined the local swim team at age 8.
In 2002, she qualified for her first major international team and represented the U.S. at the IPC Swimming World Championships in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
At 14, she was one of the youngest members of Team USA, but Mikhaila was also one of its top competitors, winning the 100 back in world record time. She also earned three silver medals in the 200 IM, 100 breast and 10K open water swim as well as a bronze in the 100 fly.
This was just a precursor to what Mikhaila would accomplish 18 months later at Athens.
She defended her 100 back title by shaving almost two seconds off her world record. She also captured silver in the SB8 women's 100 breast, and she helped the USA win the women's 34pt 400 medley relay with an American record.
But it was her 200 IM victory that Mikhaila savors most. That's because "I wasn't expected to win," she says. Mikhaila won by over five seconds.
Each night after finals, Connie would e-mail family and friends, including her birth family in Russia, with Mikhaila's results. Ironically, Mikhaila's birth mother had seen her swim on TV and was so excited, telling Connie that her "dream came true the moment she saw Mikhaila!"
Now Mikhaila is looking ahead to Beijing 2008 with a goal of breaking the world record in the 200 IM.
Like Mikhaila, Elizabeth Stone was adopted at the age of 4. Born in Kutaisi, Georgia (a former republic of the Soviet Union), Elizabeth has a congenital condition known as PFFD-Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency. She was born with a shortened right femur bone. Because of limited medical resources, Elizabeth's birth parents relinquished her, and she lived in the Kutaisi Children's Home until she was adopted by her mom, Linda.
Currently competing for East Grand Rapids Aquatics, Mich. and Coach Mike Brady, Elizabeth began swimming at the age of 9 with a local recreational team.
Recalling their first foray into swimming, Linda says, "I remember that even though she begged me to let her be on the team, she hated it the first two weeks of practice, so she then begged me to let her quit." But her mom wouldn't even let Elizabeth talk about quitting until after her first meet.
Good decision. She's been hooked on swimming ever since.
At age 14, Elizabeth was one of several rookies competing for the U.S. on the 2004 Athens Paralympic swimming team. She finished fifth in the S9 women's 100 back, setting an American record and breaking the old standard by almost three seconds.
As the current American record holder in the S9 800 and 1500 freestyle events as well as the 50 and 100 backstrokes, Elizabeth is poised for great success over the next quadrennium. Her goals are to compete at both the 2006 World Championships and the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, where she wants to win "at least two gold medals."
One of Elizabeth's fellow rookies in Athens was 12-year-old Jessica Long, the youngest athlete on the U.S. team.
Jessica was born in the Siberian city of Irkutsk and was given up at birth by a young, unmarried woman unable to care for a child with a disability. She spent the first 13 months of her life in a Siberian orphanage until she was adopted by Steve and Beth Long, who brought her home to suburban Baltimore.
When she was 18 months old, Jessica's legs were amputated below the knee. "It was a difficult decision for us," says Beth, "but we decided that amputation would give Jessica the most mobility and the best chance at a 'normal' life." Following the surgery, Jessica learned to walk with prosthetics in record time.
Coming into Athens, Jessica was ranked no higher than eighth in the world. But in her first event, the S8 women's 100 freestyle, she responded with a gold medal in American, Pan-American and Paralympic Games record time. She also dominated the 400 free a few nights later, again winning with the same trio of records, 15 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor.
But Jessica's favorite memory of Athens was "winning the relay with my teammates," she says. The relay, the women's 34pt 400 freestyle event, was the first-ever relay gold medal for the USA in a Paralympic Games.
Julie O'Neill is the swimming program manager of U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee. Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Jun 2005