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Blind athlete prepares for summer Paralympic games

 


 

Blind athlete prepares for summer Paralympic games

July 22, 2004                                                              

 

By John Gordon*

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (UMNS) — Carrie Willoughby knows that success sometimes means swimming against the tide.

The 26-year-old Birmingham, Ala., athlete will represent the United States in the swimming competition of the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games for disabled athletes. The September contest will follow the summer Olympics in Greece.

“I’m very excited about going,” said Willoughby, a United Methodist who has been legally blind since birth. “To represent my country again is going to be awesome.”

Challenges are nothing new to Willoughby, who also participated in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia. She was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a disorder that also left her without pigment in her eyes, skin and hair. She can make out larger objects, but cannot distinguish detail.

“I’ve been taught, growing up, that nothing good is ever easy, nothing easy ever shows how good you really are,” she said. “The journey, though, has been difficult.”

Willoughby volunteers as a youth counselor at the church where she grew up, St. Mark United Methodist Church in Birmingham. She sang in the youth choir, and attributes much of her success to support from the church.

“I have grown up in a church that has been incredibly supportive,” she said. “I feel like the church has really kept me grounded and has basically been that community, that sense of core, that every person needs to find in order to grow.”

Training for the Paralympics is rigorous. She is spending her summer at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, and continues her workouts during visits to her home in Birmingham.

“Right now, we’re training 12 times a week — some of those times in the pool, some of those outside the pool in the weight room and doing training and conditioning exercises,” she said. “We also do mental training outside of the physical training, mental imagery, to prepare ourselves to swim our race as we see it in our minds.”

Willoughby swims nearly seven miles a day, counting her strokes so she will know where she is in the pool and when to turn. Her mental images include standing on the podium to receive a medal when the winners are announced.

She will face some tough competition. This year’s Paralympics has drawn a record number of athletes—more than 4,000, representing 140 countries.

But she believes she has found the right combination to bring home the gold. “The Paralympic motto is the mind, body and spirit,” she explained. “And in putting all of those three together, it creates this entity that can overcome and achieve anything.”

Willoughby’s swimming career started when she joined a summer league team at the age of 6. By the time she was 16, she was part of the Alabama state championship women’s team.

She has faced doubters along the way. “I’ve had people tell me that I couldn’t,” she said. “I like to kind of push the envelope a little bit. I’d much rather just prove them wrong.”

“She’s a very determined young lady, very powerful person, very inspirational,” said Joan Wright, a longtime friend and former coach. “And just a great person, you really just want to be around her. She’s like a magnet.”

Swimming is not Willoughby’s only talent. She’s also an accomplished artist and received an art degree from Auburn University. In the future, she would like to work as a high school art teacher.

 

 

News media contact: Ginny Underwood, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

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