Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch

Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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

Jamal Hill

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.”

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Jessica Long is back after her biggest break in 20 years

Jessica Long

Someone was missing from this past summer’s World Para Swimming Championships. Jessica Long, the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history, was absent from a global championship meet for the first time in 20 years.

Long made the team for June’s worlds in Portugal, but she dropped out before the meet, citing burnout and a post-Games blues after an enjoyable fifth Paralympics in Tokyo, where she won three golds, two silvers and a bronze.

“It felt too soon to go and race,” at worlds, she said. “It’s really hard when you’re expected to constantly win and perform. I want to go and present my absolute best. Mentally, I was feeling a little negative. I don’t feel my best. I think it’s better if I just pull out.”

Long returned at the national championships in Charlotte earlier this month. It came at the end of a year devoid of the intense training that helped her win 29 Paralympic medals between 2004 (at age 12) and 2021.

She took a sisters trip to Cabo this year. She saw the vice president. If she didn’t feel like swimming on a certain day, she didn’t get into the pool.

She also took antidepressants for the first time, though she is off them now.

“It’s never really been about the medals; my identity is not in swimming, but it was wild to come back [from Tokyo] and feel like, why do I feel so weird? It was almost like no joy, like nothing satisfied me,” she said. “Swimming has always given me that confidence to take on the world as an amputee. So this past year [without swimming], I think it’s more of just such a funk. I’m slowly getting out of it since September.”

Long, 30, credited her success in Tokyo largely to moving a year before the Games from Baltimore, where she lived with her husband (married in 2019), to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She stayed in the same dorm room where she spent four years in her late teens and early 20s.

She moved back to Baltimore after the Paralympics and is working with her childhood coach, Andrew Barranco.

Long plans to return to worlds next summer in Manchester, England, and hopes to compete in two more Paralympics, making the 2028 Los Angeles Games her farewell.

There is little that hasn’t been accomplished in the pool, though she wants to break 2:40 again in the 200m individual medley, which she won at the last four Paralympics. A back condition — Long learned before the Tokyo Games that she has an extra vertebra — affects her breaststroke.

Outside of races and times, Long’s sights are set. She just finished the cover for the children’s book she’s worked on with her dad — “The Mermaid with No Tail” — that will come out closer to the 2024 Paralympics. She hopes that her birth mom, who is Russian, can watch her compete for the first time at those Paris Games.

Back home in Baltimore, Long has 28 of her 29 medals. Most of them are locked away in a closet. One is above the fridge, should she need to grab it quickly for a public appearance or to show a guest.

“It’s dirty and gross from being dropped and chipped,” she said.

One more medal, from her Paralympic debut at age 12 in 2004, is somewhere else in storage after spending time in a museum.

As Long said, the medals are not the focus. And after the last year, her goal for the Paris Games at the moment is just to get there. The competition ramp up begins at a World Series meet in Indianapolis in April.

“That’s going to set the tone,” Long said. “I definitely know, as an athlete, what I need to do. It’s more coming to terms of starting to make those sacrifices that come with it. I think I’m ready. But, yeah, that was just a hard year.”

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