Gustavus Swimmer Wins Para Gold

By Matt Higgins, MIAC
To see her swim, one would never guess that Gustavus Adolphus College senior Anna Eames was born with a disability. Eames has been a valued contributor to each of the Gusties’ last three Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC)  women’s swimming and diving championships, and her own college coach – Jon Carlson – was unaware of her medical conditions while he recruited her to be a Gustie.

Because of her passion and talent for swimming, coupled with her disability, Eames has had numerous opportunities to travel the world and represent her country on the biggest possible international stage.

When Carlson started recruiting her to swim for his Gustavus team during her junior year at Hopkins (Minn.) High School, Eames’ talent and personality dwarfed her disability to the point that Carlson didn’t even know it existed. Only when he found out she was traveling to Beijing to swim for Team USA in the 2008 Paralympic Games did he realize his newest recruit wasn’t like his other swimmers.

“Truly, I never knew about her disability,” Carlson said. “I found out she had it when she was a senior in high school and she went to Beijing. I really didn’t even know what it was when she got here. I had to ask her what it was.”

Eames’ answer was she was born with Fibular Hemimelia, and her right fibula is slightly shorter than her left fibula. She also was born with just three toes on her right foot and an abnormal ankle joint, she suffers from hip dysplasia and she has undergone 28 surgical procedures throughout her life. Her conditions make running difficult and painful, but she’s found a home in the water, and she’s swam to places she could’ve never imagined.

Her 2008 trip to Beijing for the Paralympic Games was wildly successful. Eames competes in the S10 class, which is designated for those with the mildest forms of disabilities, and she reached the medal stand in Beijing not once, but twice. She won the gold medal and set a new American record in the 100-meter butterfly (1:09.26), and she added a bronze in the 100-meter freestyle.

Earlier this month, Eames completed her Paralympic Games medal set, adding a silver medal to her collection at the 2012 Games in London. She anchored Team USA’s second-place finish in the 4×100-freestyle relay. When Eames dove in to finish the race, her team trailed Great Britain for second, but she found a way to touch the wall just before the home team to give USA the silver. In all the excitement, Eames wasn’t exactly sure how she made up the difference.

“I saw I was going to dive in a little behind them,” she said. “I was telling myself to lay off my legs in the first 25 so I’d have something left for the end, but I just watched the tape and I’ve never seen myself kick so hard, so I guess I wasn’t listening to myself. My legs started to get tired so I told myself to relax and calm down and, the next thing I knew, I was looking at the scoreboard. I’m really not sure how it happened.

“Just being in London and catching the Brits and touching them out for second place, that was definitely the highlight. It’s nice to have the full set [gold, silver, bronze] now.”

That may have been the pinnacle, but Eames’ trip to the 2012 Games had numerous highlights. She also swam in three individual events, reaching the finals in all three events, finishing sixth twice and eighth once. She was sixth in both the 100-meter butterfly (1:10.57) and 100-meter freestyle (1:02.72) and eighth in the 50-meter freestyle (29.41).

“I was hoping to go a little faster in my individual events, but I kept telling myself it’s all about the experience,” Eames said. “I made the finals and that was my goal. I’m still happy with everything and the experience is something you can’t get anywhere else.

“The crowds were amazing; it was sold out every night. They went crazy anytime there was a Brit swimming in a heat, but they were super supportive of everyone else, too. The venue was great, and living in the village was awesome.”

Even with all her success in the pool, Eames’ proudest accomplishment for Team USA this summer may have been one that had nothing to do with her times. She was named one of the team’s four captains – two men and two women – and was counted on to lead just as much as she was counted on for speed.

“It was a great honor, just to know that my team sees me as a leader and trusts me enough to put that responsibility on me,” Eames said. “I hope I did a good job. I was definitely trying to make sure everyone stays positive and I tried to take care of all the little things so everyone could just worry about swimming. We kept the team drama-free with no other distractions, so that was great.”

In fact, Eames was able to use a few things she learned while swimming at Gustavus to help Team USA during its competitions in London.

“[Carlson] always says, ‘Swim to inspire,’ and that’s something I shared with the U.S. team,” Eames said. “The actions you do never go unnoticed, and you could always be inspiring someone with the little things that you do.”

Carlson thought Eames’s selection as one of Team USA’s leaders was extremely fitting. He’s seen the characteristics of a captain since the day Eames stepped on campus, and her selfless dedication to her team became clear when she spoke to one of his youth camps this summer.

Anna Eames served as one of Team USA’s captains this summer. (Photo courtesy of Gustavus Adolphus College)

“When I found out Anna had been named captain it did not surprise me one bit,” he said. “That’s a great fit. I had her speak to one of my swim camps and the campers thought she was a really amazing story, but to tell you what kind of person she is, she’d always find a way to talk about her teammates. They’d ask about her, and she’d keep telling stories about her teammates. In an indirect way, it showed me that her focus is on the team.”

Team USA wasn’t the only team supporting Eames during her time in London. Though her Gustie teammates were half a world away, their support easily stretched across the Atlantic Ocean to let Eames know she had an entire campus behind her.

“Before I left, some of my teammates threw a party for me and they gave me a book of pictures of everyone holding up signs that said, ‘Go Anna,” Eames said. “They sent me letters, and I hung the letters and pictures up on my wall in my room in the village. They even put one of my races on the projector in the Gustavus cafeteria. Since I got back, people I’ve never even talked to before have congratulated me and said they supported me. It’s been really great, and I feel really blessed to have all their support.”

According to Carlson, her teammates were simply returning the favor after the affect Eames has had on the Gusties over her three-plus years in the program. Not only has she been a big contributor to Gustavus’ MIAC title teams – she finished fourth in the 1,500-meter freestyle, 10th in the 500-yard freestyle and 13th in the 200-yard butterfly at the 2012 MIAC Championships – but her positive attitude and uplifting spirit have been an infectious boost to the Gusties during her tenure.

In fact, even her participation in the distance events is a display of her team-first approach. Eames always competed in the spring and butterfly events and continues to swim those races in her paralympic competitions, but Carlson asked her to switch to distance in her collegiate competitions for the good of the team, and not only did she agree, she put her usual positive spin on the situation.

“It ended up giving me great balance,” Eames said of adding distance to her repertoire. “It takes a little different preparation, but swimming distance at Gustavus helps me with endurance to finish the sprints, and a little speed helps me in the 500. Every time I’m training for distance I just think about the end result, which is helping the team at conference.”

“Her special gift is her positive attitude,” said Carlson, “and for her to smile as much as she does and give the effort she does, it has an amazing impact on her swimming and an even bigger impact on her teammates. It really is the main reason she’s continued to improve in our program. She’s now one of the top distance swimmers we’ve ever had, but it’s completely different training. However, we put her in distance because we had some good sprinters already and she wanted to do anything she could to contribute.”

That positive attitude doesn’t just come through in the pool, but in all walks of Eames’ life. For example, she spent time this summer volunteering at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in Burnsville, Minn. That’s where she had most of her surgeries, and figured she could use her experiences to benefit other families with children in similar situations.

“During my time in the hospital, they always made me feel better about what was going on,” Eames said. “I worked in the surgery waiting room and escorted families back to their children when they were waking up from surgery. I know the feeling of being the kid who was having surgery and what they would want to hear. It was great to give back and be in that setting in a different role.”

Those experiences have also helped Eames map out her future. She’s currently an honor student majoring in Biology and is on-track to graduate in May. After that, she plans to take a year off to prepare and apply to graduate school and, someday, she plans to be a genetic counselor. That appears to be a perfect fit for someone with her background and demeanor.

“I’d love to be the go-between with the physician and the patient,” she said. “I’m a pretty good listener and I can help in stressful situations. I’ve met so many people who have overcome so many things and I’ve overcome a lot, so I can support people and remind them that it’s not the end of the road. If something stressful happens, they can push through.”

But first, she has one last season to swim for Gustavus, and both her and Carlson have high expectations. Not only could Gustavus capture the conference title in each of Eames’ four seasons at the MIAC Championships in February, but with her recent international success in London under her belt – or more appropriately, around her neck – Eames is expecting to finish with a flourish.

“We have a huge team as always – this year is exceptionally big – but we’re looking good,” Eames said. “I just want to drop time, score at conference and get in the top eight in more than one event. I’m in shape and ready to go and it’s senior year, so I’m not holding anything back.”

Her coach agrees, and is excited to see what Eames’ senior year has in store. But regardless of the results in the pool, he knows exactly what her contributions to the team will be in a much larger sense.

“I want her to make sure she enjoys this last chance at collegiate swimming,” Carlson said. “I expect big things as far as performance and I’m excited to see what it will bring. It’s hard to be consistently positive, but she just is. Her personality has this soft magnetic quality to it. People just light up when they see her. To have that type of impact on people consistently is a pretty amazing gift, and her bond with her teammates is pretty amazing.”

Eames looks to the future with a lot of questions unanswered. How will she fare in the pool her senior year for Gustavus? Where will she attend graduate school? Will she continue her paralympic swimming career for Team USA? Regardless, the one certainly is that her disability has never been, and will never be, a limitation on what Eames can accomplish. Her success in the pool is substantial, and it serves as a resounding metaphor to the success that awaits her, constantly accompanied by her unwavering positive spirit.

“I just think that with what I’ve gone through, and what I’ve seen others go through, there’s just no reason to be negative,” Eames said. “I have the opportunity to be active and compete, so go with it.

“Don’t dwell on the bad things, focus on the good things.”

Between her swimming success, bright future and her outlook on life, it appears Eames will never run out of good things to focus on.