Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Young Swimmer's Disability is Her Strength

Amazing things happen every day at our YMCAs. Just ask the folks at the A.E. Finley YMCA who watch Hannah Aspden train. This article about the young YMCA of the Triangle (YOTA) swimmer was featured in the May 3 edition of the News & Observer. Click here to learn more about the YOTA program.

Hannah Aspden was born to break rules.

She has been bucking conventional wisdom since she was old enough to walk. Except for Hannah, learning to walk was a challenge. She was born with just one leg.

Hannah is 10 but seems older. She's tall and athletic, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She possesses a wry sense of humor and smiles often, flashing a set of braces. She's not at all self-conscious as she perches, flamingo-like, at the edge of a pool on one leg.

Hannah Trains at the A.E. Finley Pool
Hannah's parents, Jennifer and TJ Aspden, believe their daughter was born to overcome challenges, and they're just along for the ride.

"From the beginning, we decided to let Hannah be independent and to give her every opportunity to succeed," her father said.

Hannah was born premature and missing her entire left leg.

"It's called a congenital hip disarticulation, as she has no leg at all on her left side," Jennifer Aspden said.

Even a decade ago, information on how to deal with babies like Hannah was scarce. In the stressful six months following Hannah's birth, her parents feared for their baby's future. But as Hannah grew stronger, her fighting spirit emerged. Today, her parents' fears are gone.

"Once Hannah started trying to climb out of her crib, we knew everything would be OK," TJ Aspden said.

Eager to succeed
As with all babies old enough to start walking, Hannah started pulling up on furniture. But when she tried to take her first steps, she simply fell down.
While doctors discouraged the use of a prosthetic to help her walk, her parents insisted they try. Success was immediate.

"She was able to balance right away and then started walking," her dad said. "She taught the doctors a lot."
Teachers, friends and complete strangers who encounter Hannah learn from her every day.

Hannah started leading by example the day she followed her older brother off a diving board into a neighborhood pool when she was 4. She came up swimming and has not stopped since.

"Compared to other 10-year-olds, Hannah is a very good swimmer," said Patrick Curran, her coach with the YMCA of the Triangle Swim Team. "She's fully confident that she can compete on the same level as her peers. She is starting to see herself as an international athlete."

High-level competitor
Hannah recently returned from her first international competition, the U.S. Paralympics Spring Nationals/2011 Spring Can-Am Meet, held April 7-9 in Minneapolis. She was the youngest swimmer at the meet, according to results posted on the event website.The event was significant for Hannah because it was the first time she had seen other athletes with disabilities like hers.

"It was cool. Everyone had something different, but we didn't see each other for their disabilities because everyone was like that," Hannah said. "I saw how others deal with their challenges and saw that they were all just glad to be there and happy."

Hannah has been able to turn an obvious disability into strengths that are not visible to the eye, Curran said.

"Hannah's biggest strength as an athlete is her self-confidence," he said.
She also has tremendous core strength and upper body power. Although Hannah uses a prosthetic some of the time, she mostly gets around on crutches and by hopping.

"Using crutches has caused her arms and upper body to become very solid," her coach said. "She engages her core by hopping. Her sense of balance comes from her core strength, and high level swimming is about the core."

She climbs monkey bars, plays soccer and roller-skates, using crutches to propel herself at top speeds around the rink. She would love to try track and field, and she fully believes she can learn to jump hurdles.
Her upper-body strength pays off during games of tag, too.

"When someone's about to tag me, I can just jump up a tree and get away," she said, laughing.

At ease with herself
Hannah, a fifth-grader at North Raleigh Christian Academy, enjoys reading, making jewelry and playing the guitar. She would like to swim in the Paralympics or even the Olympics someday.


  1. Great Job Hannah!
    You rock!
    Your Friend,
    Sophie Z.

  2. Hannah I swam against you in a swim meet a while back. You are a beautiful and strong girl. I wish you the best! xx