Jamal Hill, a Paralympic medalist recognized by United Nations, works to be one with water

Jamal Hill
Getty
0 Comments

Given Jamal Hill‘s unique swimming story, it is no surprise that the 27-year-old doesn’t just stow his Paralympic medal in a typical place like on a mantle or inside a sock drawer.

Asked its location, the 6-foot-4 Hill let out a belly laugh.

“At this very moment,” he said, “my Paralympic medal is in the glove box in my car.”

Hill, who dropped out of Hiram College, a Division III program in Ohio, with a dream to become a professional, Olympic swimmer, lives by a Bruce Lee mantra.

“The goal is to be one with the water,” Hill said in a ready room at last month’s U.S. Paralympics National Championships in Charlotte. “So that’s pretty much what I’m always thinking about, man. Just trying to — air quote — create my own style, but really have absolutely no style.”

What’s clear is there is no swimmer with a story like Hill’s. At the start of the last Paralympic cycle, Hill was still keeping his Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) diagnosis from age 10 a secret — “living in denial about my disability” — with an end goal of the Olympic Games.

CMT is a hereditary neurological condition that can result in progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation in the body. In swimming, CMT put him at a disadvantage off the blocks, losing up to a meter to a training partner by the time he splashed.

By the close of the last quadrennium, Hill was sponsored by Speedo and leaving Tokyo with a 50m freestyle bronze medal at the Paralympic Games. He followed that by taking silver at last year’s world championships. Hill’s progression would seemingly make him target gold at this year’s worlds and perhaps the 2024 Paris Games.

That is far from his sole focus, however.

“You can’t just be doing it for the medal,” he said. “We’ve all seen it time and again. When people reach the heights of the sport, when they finally get that gold medal, and then it’s like, well, you mean to tell me this piece of metal isn’t going to fill that void of emptiness inside of me? And then it’s all downhill from there.”

Hill has ambitions beyond the four-lane, 25-yard pool where he trains in Pasadena, California. He runs his own pro team, the Swim Up Hill Victors, with six regulars as well as guests cycling in.

This past September, Hill was named by the United Nations as one of 17 worldwide young change-makers leading efforts to “combat the world’s most pressing issues” and achieve “sustainable development goals.”

Credit the recognition to Swim Up Hill, the non-profit he founded with a goal to teach one million people per year how to swim (actor Terry Crews was an early graduate). Hill said it had 3,000 pupils last year and is already locked in to reach at least 12,000 people this year through partnerships with 55 YMCAs, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Los Angeles and more international programs.

The plan is to quadruple that number annually over the next several years and be over a million in 2028, the year Los Angeles hosts the Olympics and Paralympics. By then, Hill and his coach, Wilma Wong, hope that one of the swimmers at the Games is a person of color who learned to swim through Up Hill.

It’s ambitious, but consider the 54-year-old Wong’s story, too. She was never a competitive swimmer. She didn’t start instructing swimmers on technique until 2016, when, as a mental performance coach, she added timing athletes with a watch to her duties. She had no experience guiding an Olympic or Paralympic-level swimmer when she met Hill in 2017.

Wong supported Hill’s initial goal to go from a Division III dropout to the Olympics, but things began to change when Wong saw Hill using his arms to drag his legs out of his car and the pool.

“She pretty much confronted me, and I kind of came out of the closet [about my CMT diagnosis] to her,” Hill said.

Wong suggested the Paralympics. Hill rebuffed.

“I definitely will not be doing that because of the stigma surrounding disability,” he remembered. “Who wants to feel like other people are looking down on them, right? That’s a stigma that we’re constantly battling in society.”

Hill changed his mind a few months later when a British swimmer visited and, separate from Wong, also suggested the Paralympics. The coach called it divine intervention.

“No one else has said anything about it in 12 years,” Hill said. “I’m a person of faith. I believe in God, the spirit of the universe. And I’m just like, well, this seems like a viable opportunity for me to continue to pursue this dream [to be a professional swimmer], to make it a reality. Let me swallow my ego, swallow my pride. Let me see what this is about.”

In 2018, Hill won the 50m and 100m frees in his division at his first U.S. Paralympics Nationals. At the same meet, he said a family member told him that Grover Evans, believed to be the first Black swimmer on a U.S. Paralympic team, was his great cousin.

In 1977, Evans fell asleep while driving, swerved into a ditch, flipped over several times and was pronounced dead twice at a hospital before waking up, according to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. He survived as a quadriplegic and, 15 years later, made his first of three Paralympic teams at age 40. He was 56 at his last Games in 2008. Evans died in 2017 at 65.

In 2021, Hill signed with Speedo a month before the Paralympic trials. Not only had he yet to make the team for Tokyo, he also had yet to be classified to be eligible for the Games.

Even after Hill flew to Brazil and checked off classification, then broke the American 50m free record at trials, Wong said the goal at the Games was simply to make the final. “It was a long shot to medal,” she said. But Wong said Hill thrives under pressure. In the Paralympic final, he lowered his American record again and snagged the bronze.

Hill became the second Black American swimmer in recent history to win a Paralympic medal after Curtis Lovejoy, a four-time medalist between 2000 and 2004. The USOPC could not confirm if anybody won a medal before Lovejoy did.

Then at this past June’s world championships, Hill shared 50m free silver behind Italian Simone Barlaam, who equaled his world record and won by a whopping 1.66 seconds. Barlaam had defeated Hill by less than a half-second at the Paralympics.

Hill’s work is clearly cut out in a race where he swims for 25 seconds while taking one breath. But that is not all he is striving for.

“This piece of metal is not going to make you a better human being,” Hill said. “It’s about the person that you become along the process.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Isabeau Levito, Bradie Tennell, Amber Glenn named to U.S. team for World Championships

0 Comments

SAN JOSE, Calif. – With a calm command belying her age, Isabeau Levito has taken control of U.S. women’s skating at age 15.

Levito came here as the solid favorite to take her first national title, and she did it with a seemingly effortless grace, her balletic style producing solid winning performances in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate.

She was the last of 18 skaters in the free skate, following rivals who made mistakes big and small. Levito did not need perfection, but her skating approached it, even if the execution of some jumps could have been better.

Levito left no doubt of her superiority and burst into a wide smile even before the scores were announced. After a narrow win over Bradie Tennell (.02 points) in the short program, Levito (223.33) wound up 10.21 points ahead of the runner-up Tennell (213.12) in the final standings.

Amber Glenn was third at 207.44. She, Levito and Tennell will fill the three women’s places on the U.S. team for the March World Championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Two of the three U.S. women’s skaters on the 2022 Olympic team have announced their retirements (Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell; Karen Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return). Given that and Tennell’s recurrent problems with injuries, Levito’s stature as the leading U.S. woman seemed assured. Whatever pressure she felt holding that position was not evident.

“My entire goal truly for both programs was to stay composed and to really try to suppress my nerves as much as possible and to really not let little minor silly mistakes happen,” Levito said. “I feel as though I did just that today and I’m very proud of myself for it.”

“I’ve gotten very good at suppressing nerves,” she had said after the short program. “I still feel the effects of the competition. But I find my own way mentally to handle it.”

For both Tennell and Glenn, there was a redemptive quality to their skating.

Neither had a result at last year’s nationals. Glenn had to withdraw after the short program when she tested positive for COVID. Tennell never made it to the event because of the foot injury that kept her out of competition for all last season.

“Honestly, it was terrifying being back here after the conclusion of my season last year,” Glenn said. “That was a big mental hurdle for me, but I was happy I was actually able to enjoy myself again and enjoy competing.”

Glenn made her 10th career attempt at a triple axel, stepping out of the landing after getting full rotational credit. Her persistence in trying that jump, which she never has landed cleanly, is one reason she was holding her hip after finishing the free skate. Glenn insisted it was just soreness.

“An unfortunate side effect of being 23 and doing these ultra (difficult) elements is my body can’t always keep up very well,” Glenn said.

Tennell, who turns 25 Tuesday, has been battling an injury in her right foot for more than a year, then an injury in her left foot since October. She fought past all that to make the podium for the fifth time in her last five nationals – twice first, twice second and once third.

“This one probably means the most, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this again,” Tennell said. “To be here and to have achieved it, especially after the (poor) start of my season and the bumps that I had to overcome, I’m very proud of what I accomplished.”

Levito, the reigning world junior champion, reeled off seven triple jumps, two in combination with other triple jumps. She glided from element to element seamlessly.

“I finally skated the free the way I’ve been training to do it,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

Scotty James
Getty
0 Comments

Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!