Eames has turned disability into opportunity

BY foxsports • September 25, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS – Anna Eames was 5 when she realized what water could do.

Underwater, she could move without pain. Underwater, she was just as fast as everyone else, just as graceful and athletic. Underwater, she could compete without being one bit different.

And so the little girl who'd been born with one leg shorter than the other and just three toes on one foot, the little girl with a bad ankle joint and hip dysplasia – that little girl took to the water. Eames swam because her brother, Eddie, was doing it, because her parents, Ward and Margaret Eames, told her to. She swam also because she loved it, because she was good at it, because she was a kid who needed a sport to play, after all.

As a child, Eames never dreamed she'd win multiple medals at Paralympic Games in Beijing and London. She never imagined she'd have traveled to five continents by the time she graduated from college or that she'd have missed school to go to the White House and meet the president.

For that matter, Eames didn't even believe she had a disability. It never occurred to her until she got one, on paper, at 15, and now, six years later, those legs have given her not a problem but rather a platform, a voice and a unique opportunity to grow.

Anna Eames today looks like your average college student. She roams the hilltop campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., with the requisite accessories of a female coed: fleece, flip flops, headband, backpack. She might look a little stressed, perhaps, but doesn't everybody? Eames blends in, one woman among hundreds, one swimmer on a team of 90, and that makes everything she's accomplished all the more amazing.

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Growing up in Golden Valley, Minn., Eames was hardly marked as different. Those close to her knew that her right foot was a bit smaller and narrower than the left. They knew it had only three toes. They knew that running hurt, that she had surgery to correct her fibular hemimelia (legs of two different lengths). It was simply who Eames was, a part of her identity so ingrained it became hard to notice. She was simply born that way. It didn't affect her on a daily basis. Not too much, at least.

Sports were hard, though, because any activity that involves impact on her legs is painful, especially for her weaker right leg, the one with too few toes and a bad ankle joint. So running was out, and with it most athletic activities. Swimming was always the answer.

From age 5 to 11, Eames swam seasonally and enjoyed it. At 11, she decided to join a year-round team. She was improving and showing promise, but just as she made her commitment to swimming, Eames had to stop for her first surgery. The routine was broken, as it would be from time to time in the coming years, and getting back into the rhythm of the sport was harder than she would ever have imagined.

"There were definitely times where it seemed like it wasn't worth it because I was like, ‘I'm never going to get back to where I was,'" Eames said.

But eventually, the interruptions became normal, just as the difficulties had so many years before. Eames excelled at swimming, and when she was 15, she attended a large meet at the University of Minnesota. While she was there, a coach had a proposition for Eames. Maybe she should see if she could qualify for the U.S. National Paralympic Team.

But that's for people with disabilities. That wasn't Anna Eames. She just had those three toes and that ankle and the hip problem and those surgeries. Those were all normal to her – until then. For the first time, Eames and her family had to reconsider. Perhaps what they'd taken as normal was something else.

Quickly, Eames was evaluated for the Paralympics. The meet at Minnesota was big enough that she was tested on the spot, asked to do strength and range of motion tests to compare her physical abilities to the baseline abilities of what the Paralympic Committee considers to be an able-bodied individual's.

For the first time, all the things that had plagued Eames, that had forced her into the pool without any other options, were going to become an asset. She wasn't quite sure what the Paralympics entailed, not yet, but she knew that this could be an opportunity.

Nerves kicked in, though, when judges started whispering and gesturing to the 15-year-old swimmer whom they were tasked with classifying and reducing to a number and category. What were they saying, Eames and her mother wondered. Was it bad? Would she not make it?

"They kind of were mumbling things… and making it seem like I wasn't going to meet the criteria," Eames said. "My mom was like, ‘I never thought I'd say this, but maybe it's a good thing that you're not disabled enough. Why are we hoping you're disabled?' "

Suddenly, being disabled was a goal, and Eames was renegotiating exactly what she thought about herself and those two legs. She'd never considered that she might have a disability until that day. Until then, a disability was a strain, a burden; it was something at a distance, something others might have of which she should be respectful. But in the course of one swim meet, Eames was first wishing for one and then, finally and fatefully, classified with one.

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Anna Eames is an S10.

That's her classification, as the highest-functioning, least-disabled kind of Paralympian. She competes against people with a range of disabilities, from a lack of calf muscles to below-the-knee-amputees to mild cerebral palsy. Anna Eames is an S10, but she's also a swimmer and a biology major and a hopeful grad student and a hundred thousand other things.

That's why when coach Jon Carlson at Gustavus Adolphus recruited her, he didn't have a clue what her disability was until weeks into her freshman year. He knew simply that she'd gone to Beijing for the Paralympics at the beginning of her senior year, that she'd won a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. Even that, he only learned gradually. When she couldn't come on a recruiting trip because of a conflict with the Games, Eames told him only that she'd be in China and would need to schedule a different time.

"She was just a swimmer who showed interest in Gustavus," Carlson said. "I looked up her times. They seemed pretty decent."

So Eames arrived as a freshman. She swam. Gradually, Carlson got up the courage to ask her what this disability he'd heard of might be. She explained. She said that, no, she'd rather he not announce it to the team. If they wanted to know, they could ask. It was as simple as that.

It was as simple as a butterfly kick with a breaststroke pull in practice, as no breaststroke or IMs in meets. It was as simple as pacing her kicking and two different sized fins. That's how it always had been, that that's how it remained.

Eventually, Eames' disability became just a fact. She went from a good swimmer to a member of the conference meet roster, and eventually she became one of the top distance swimmers in the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Eventually, her disability became little more than an endearing nickname, and her right foot was no longer just a foot. It was the Babe, as her friends have termed it, just another part of what makes Eames who she is.

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Sophomore year of college, Eames went to a swim team retreat. One night, the swimmers set out for a run. Eames wasn't able to join, and the coaches told her to walk. That was out of the question, and so for 25 minutes, she lunged. And lunged. And lunged.

She couldn't sit down properly for a week.

That's Anna Eames in a nutshell. She's tough and resolute. She signed up for a ballet class this semester to test her limits, no matter than she can't stand on her toes and doesn't have a normal range of motion in one ankle.

She was able to catch up quickly after missing more than a week of school, including the first day, while in London competing and winning a silver medal in the 4x100-meter free relay. She does it all because she can and because she wants to, and talking to her, it's easy to believe that she's simply blind to the difficulties.

"Having a physical disability isn't the end of the world," Eames said. "It's not a bad thing. It just is what it is. I got the title of having a disability, but at the same time, I learned that's not really that big of a deal."

She's seen things that make her appreciate what she has and question the assumptions she's always held, like the Chinese swimmers with no arms who kick their sprints as fast as she, one of the top swimmers in the MIAC, swims them. She's met wheelchair-bound swimmers who can barely propel themselves on wheels but who manage to complete their races against all odds.

Eames, the girl who swam because it seems natural, wonders how these people ever dreamed of getting in the pool. It's the kind of thought that can stretch your brain a bit, that makes everything seem so much easier. So what if she can only buy her shoes at Nordstrom, where they'll sell her a pair in two different sizes, one in Size 8 and one in Size 5.5? These people have bigger problems than Nordstrom, and that might be why Eames smiles so wide and is so willing to talk.

It's no surprise that no matter how much she's supposed to speak about herself, Eames always manages to bring it back to these others, in foreign countries or without a platform to share their stories. On paper, she is one of them. But that doesn't mean she can't be impressed.

A decade ago, Eames had a condition, a bad leg. Six years ago, it became a disability. Now, it's a platform. She's proud of herself and what she's accomplished in swimming, but she's prouder of the hundreds of athletes around her, the ones who have it so much worse. Now, at 21, she wouldn't trade that leg for anything.

"I got experiences that I never ever would have gotten to do, and I wouldn't trade anything I've gone through with my disability for what I've gotten to do," Eames said.

You've got to believe her.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.


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