Becca Meyers normally swims six days a week, totaling up to 50,000 meters. The coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that.
Meyers, the greatest distance swimmer in her Paralympic classification for visual impairment, spent three months out of the pool. Now, after moving from the D.C. area to her native Baltimore, she is back in the water twice a week, covering a fraction of her usual training distance.
She called it “starting from scratch.”
“I have confidence in myself,” Meyers said, “and with the help of Bruce, I know I can get back to where I need to be.”
That’s Bruce Gemmell, best known for coaching Katie Ledecky while she rewrote the distance-swimming record books in the Rio Olympic cycle. Gemmell began coaching Meyers last year, though she said it is now a virtual relationship due to her pandemic-forced relocation.
“I knew he could take me to the next level,” Meyers said.
Gemmell, who had never regularly trained a Paralympic hopeful, was convinced to add Meyers to his Nation’s Capital group after watching her swim for 20 minutes.
“She had this damn Olympic rings tattoo on the back of her rib cage,” he said. “I saw those damn rings going up and down the pool a couple of times, and I just almost immediately thought, I’ll do whatever I can do to help her out.”
They clicked right away. Meyers broke six world records in 2019 and earned four medals at the world championships across butterfly, freestyle and the individual medley.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating it when I say she immediately reminded me of Katie,” Gemmell said. “The heck with any barriers. I don’t care what the hurdles are. This is what I want to do.“
Meyers developed goals not only to earn four individual Tokyo Paralympic medals, but also to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. USA Swimming does not have record of a Paralympian qualifying for previous Olympic Trials.
Meyers, who was born deaf with Usher syndrome, which also caused her to go blind, believes she had a great chance to become the first if the Tokyo Games had been held this summer.
Her personal bests are within three seconds of the Olympic Trials qualifying standard in the 400m freestyle, 13 seconds in the 800m free and 22 seconds in the 1500m free (a 16-minute race). The 800m and 1500m are not on the Paralympic program.
Before the pandemic, Meyers was scheduled to chase Olympic Trials qualifying times at meets in March, April, May and June.
“I feel like I was on the right track,” Meyers said.
Instead, she spent all or parts of each of those months not swimming at all. And without Gemmell after she relocated to Baltimore and re-registered as a Franklin and Marshall College history major. It’s unknown when she can return to normal training in D.C.
“[Olympic Trials] was a goal this past year, and I’m still holding onto that goal,” she said.
So much time off is not foreign to Meyers. After her Paralympic debut at age 17 in 2012, she suffered a severe concussion from a collision while circle swimming in a high school meet warm-up. She also tore all the ligaments in the back of her neck and was sidelined for two to three months.
Meyers came back to win double gold at the 2013 World Championships. At the Rio Paralympics, she earned three golds and one silver in individual events, plus broke three world records in arguably the best performance by any U.S. swimmer.
“The comparison I always made when I talked to anybody else, Becca was the Katie [Ledecky] of the Rio Paralympic Games,” Gemmell said. “That was the attitude, the dominance, the performances, the winning medals, sort of a parallel there.”
Meyers detailed the pandemic’s effect on her out of the pool in a July 5 Instagram post.
“As a deafblind person, the world has become pretty hard for me to navigate on my own,” she wrote, accompanying a photo with her guide dog, Birdie, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix. “With face coverings and physical distancing, I lose my ability to fully communicate with others and be independent. Birdie and I went on our first adventure to the store since COVID-19 changed the way we live. We have not been to a store or a public business together since the beginning of March because I was scared. Scared of the masks. Scared of the new ‘normal’ layout of the stores. Scared of not being able to hear or read someone’s lips when they communicated with me. Even though I am scared, it is a challenge that I am willing to take to own my independence.”
Meyers is searching, like many Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls forced to extend their Tokyo prep another year.
“I was in my prime,” she said. “I really am counting down the days until everything is back to normal, whatever that means.”
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