Hannah Aspden knew right away she didn’t swim fast enough to qualify for the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the Paralympics in Brazil last month.
Aspden, who was born with one leg, had been battling an autoimmune disorder that left her so weak and tired she had to skip training sessions in the months leading up to the Paralympic events.
The relay had earned the 16-year-old Leesville High School student a silver medal at the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships the previous year. She wondered if her trip to Rio would end up being a big disappointment for her.
“I was afraid,” Aspden said. “I was wondering if my body could take everything I was going to put it through, and in the back of my mind knowing that it could, because I’d done it time and time again.”
On her final day of competition, Sept. 16, Aspden earned bronze medals in the 100-meter backstroke and the 4x100 medley relay. Her finishing times were good enough to set American records, and Aspden was the youngest swimmer to medal for Team USA.
Aspden said she burst into tears after the relay.
“Nothing else had gone well,” she said. “I finally felt like myself after that race, which I hadn’t for almost a year before. That race was like, ‘I’m back, finally. I can do it again.’ ”
Her mother, Jennifer Aspden, cried too.
“The tears and the emotions that day, it was the happiness of (winning), but it was more that she’d overcome the sickness,” she said.
No one knew Aspden had only one leg until she was born. Doctors and nurses hadn’t realized it through ultrasound images.
Growing up in Raleigh, she tried soccer and basketball, aided by a prosthetic leg, but she struggled to keep up with her teammates. After fifth grade, she stopped using the prosthetic and opted instead for crutches.
When she was 4, Aspden fell in love with swimming. In the pool, her disability didn’t set her back.
“When you’re in the water, it doesn’t really matter what you have or don’t have,” she said. “I just wanted to do what other people were doing, and I didn’t think about the fact that I might have to do it a little bit differently.”
Aspden began swimming competitively year-round with the YMCA of the Triangle when she was 8. Two years later, she was participating in international Paralympic events.
At her first Paralympic swim meet in Minnesota in 2011, Aspden stepped onto the pool deck and slipped, face-planting onto the concrete. Instead of giving up, she calmly picked herself up, grabbed her crutches and headed toward the warm-up pool.
She wasn’t going to let anything hold her back.
“If there’s something I want to do or figure out how to do, I don’t want to make any excuses,” Aspden said.
When she was 12, Aspden was named to the U.S. Emerging Team roster, and the next year she earned a spot on the national Paralympic team.
After winning a silver medal in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the IPC Swimming World Championships in Scotland last year, she began training for the 2016 Paralympics.
But something was wrong.
Starting last November, Aspden was shivering one minute, burning up the next. Her blood pressure was high, she felt sick after she ate, and she was always tired. She experienced sudden bouts of dizziness and memory loss.
There were days when Aspden couldn’t crawl up the stairs of her family’s home or get out of bed.
“She went from this perfectly healthy person to not,” her mother said. “Not having an answer was scary.”
After trips to the emergency room and appointments with medical specialists, Aspden finally received a diagnosis: dysautonomia, an umbrella name for an autoimmune disorder that wreaks havoc on the autonomic nervous system.
There is no cure, but medications, exercise and dietary changes can improve quality of life. More than 70 million people suffer from various forms of the disorder, according to Dysautonomia International.
At the start of the year, Aspden and one of her coaches, Tom Hazelett, sketched out a training plan for the months leading up to Rio. But they had to scrap it because of Aspden’s illness, and she missed many practice sessions.
“I was legitimately worried that she would even swim all summer,” said Hazelett, who has coached Aspden for nearly four years. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. Swimming-wise, we were cutting it really close, with it getting to the point where it possibly wasn’t going to get better.”
Her mother told her taking a year off to recuperate would be an option. She could set her sights on the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
But Aspden refused to give up.
“It was really hard ... not only physically, but mentally, feeling like you’re getting better and then having it all drop off again,” Aspden said. “It was so up and down for a really long time that it got really frustrating at times.”
Once in Rio, Aspden caught a cold, adding to her doubts. But she went on to compete in five individual events and one relay.
The medals were proof – she could do it.
Back home in Raleigh, Aspden collapsed on her bed, exhausted.
She didn’t have much time to rest, though. She did media interviews and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet President Barack Obama.
Aspden also had to focus on catching up on homework. After school, she practices swimming at N.C. State University. She’s working back up to her competition training schedule – 2.5 hours six days a week.
“I’m definitely looking at Tokyo, but there are things I need to do between now and then to get there,” Aspden said of the 2020 Paralympics.
She said she’s still reflecting on Rio – the obstacles she had to overcome to get there, and the lessons she learned along the way.
Aspden has long admired Elizabeth Stone, a retired Paralympic gold medal-winning swimmer. After they met at a meet in 2011, Stone became her mentor, giving her one of her swimming caps from the Paralympics. Stone’s name is printed underneath an American flag.
“When she gave me that cap, I thought, ‘I want one of those with my name on it,’ ” Aspden said. “I still have her cap, and now I have some of my own.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler