Freshman swimmer won’t let disability stop her from making a splash


Freshman swimmer Ahalya Lettenberger has barely finished her first week of college classes, but she already has a good reason for an excused absence in September:  She’s going for gold.

Lettenberger will spend the first two weeks of September in London representing the United States (and Rice) by competing in the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships. The event is the biggest international meet of the year for para swimmers, and it’s the major lead-in to next summer’s 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

A Chicago area native who just finished her first week of school — and O-Week at McMurtry College the week before that — Lettenberger is one of 17 athletes who earned their way onto the United States Para National Team last April. She has been a Team USA veteran of international meets since 2014, and now she wants another shot at winning a prize she’s won before: An international Gold Medal.

“I made my first international team in 2014 and in 2015 I was named to the Para Pan American Games in Toronto,” Lettenberger said. “I ended up winning gold in the 100-meter backstroke and that was one of the best experiences in my life. I will never forget that moment of representing my country and hearing my national anthem play.

“Now the Para Swimming World Championships are coming up and this whole month (of August) has been crazy,” she added. “It’s the first week of school and I’m already scheduled to miss more class than actually be in class. My professors have been great. I am thankful Rice is working with me on this important goal. Next year is the big goal, the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.”

USA Swimming (the country’s governing body over the sport) has already learned what Rice is beginning to learn. Lettenberger has established a pattern of lining up a series of high goals, then reaching them. Her accomplishments come with a consistency that now almost seems easy, but her life wasn’t always like this.

Lettenberger was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenital (AMC), a muscular/skeleton disorder that affects her hips and legs. She suffers from joint restrictions and the muscles in her legs have turned into tissue. Her hips are dislocated and her knees can only bend to about 90 degrees. She can’t move her ankles at all. Lettenberger can stand and move short distances, but anything outside her room at McMurtry requires her wheelchair.

“When I was a lot younger I played soccer and softball, but soon the fields got too big and the other kids got too fast,” Lettenberger explained. “I accepted that couldn’t keep up, but I didn’t want to end my sporting career. I love sports and my family loves sports. I was desperate to find something else.

“My neighbors recommended joining the local swim club,” she recalled. “As soon as I was in the water I knew I belonged. There were no braces nor wheelchairs holding me back. There was no one was staring for the way I walked.

“It was just me in the pool,” she said. “The water is where I felt free.”

The determined sports enthusiast had found her arena. She began competing for a youth club team, but the swim meets didn’t work for her.

“When I started swimming competitively I enjoyed it, but I was finishing last in every race,” she recalled. “I cannot use my legs in the water, but I was competing against other kids who could. Eventually I found out about para swimming. I went to my first para meet in 2013 and loved it. I can compete like I have always wanted to, on a level playing field so to speak.

“At my first para meet I immediately had a sense that all the other competitors there have probably had the same experiences that I have had,” she said. “It was new to be able to talk to other competitive athletes who truly knew and understood similar experiences.”

Because international swimming and winning a 2020 Paralympic medal was still in the equation when she began to think about where she would go to college, Lettenberger had a specific checklist. Sure, her school would need to combine elite academics and athletics, but it would also need to have a little something extra.

“I first found out about Rice through one of my club teammates back home in Chicago, Lindsay Mathys,” Lettenberger explained. “She is a couple years older than me and was already here, so I heard about Rice and thought it sounded interesting. When I started getting into the college search, I looked at schools where I could major in bioengineering. With bioengineering, I think I might then be able to design medical devices that could help other people with disabilities find their independence.

“Rice was right at the top of the list,” she said. “I looked at a bunch of schools, but I just loved everything about Rice. It had the perfect balance of academics and athletics, and I loved meeting the rest of the team and the coaches. It felt very welcoming. It just felt like home.”

John Sullivan is assistant communications director in Rice Athletics. 

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