More than 50 swimmers from across the country converged on the Augusta Aquatic Center last weekend to participate in one of the leading Paralympic meets in the United States, the fifth annual Fred Lamback Disability Swim Meet.
Many of the swimmers were seeking national and world qualifying times. Experienced swimmers like blind athlete McLain Hermes of Georgia, who competed at last month's Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, mentored and inspired young swimmers new to competitive swimming, seven of whom participated in a two-day developmental camp held by Paralympic officials prior to the meet.
Along the way, swimmers Frankie Jaimes (Wisconsin) and Harper Scott (Georgia) set new American Paralympic records. Other attendees from the Trials were MeiMei White (Florida), a member of the US emerging team, and Victoria Beelner (Georgia).
Joining the American swimmers were Manuela Baena, who traveled from Colombia, and Abbas Karimi, a medal-winning swimmer from Afghanistan who recently immigrated to Oregon as a refugee after two years waiting in Turkey.
Nineteen-year-old Karimi, who was born without arms, is excited that he can now train regularly. "Swimming is my passion. My goal is the Paralympics, and I won't give up until I get there," he said.
"This meet allows athletes with a wide range of abilities to challenge themselves, and ASL was honored to have them," said Linda Johnson, coordinator for the Aiken-Augusta Swim League that hosts the meet. "The determination they show is inspirational, and behind every one of them is a story about the impact swimming has made."
One such story is JR Douglas of Atlanta, an intellectually disabled teen. His mother Ayana Douglas tells how swimming on his high school team significantly increased his acceptance at school. "Other varsity swimmers would stop to talk to him or high five him in the hallway," she said. "It would make his day!"
"The Fred," as it is known, was established by Aiken-Augusta Swim League in 2012 in honor of Fred Lamback, a longtime Augusta resident who coaches disabled swimmers throughout Georgia. This year, ASL members, including over 30 teenage swimmers, provided meet organization and timing.
In 2015, ASL received USA Swimming's Disability Swimming Service Award, the top national-level award given to "the individual or group with the greatest contributions to inclusion over a number of years."
The event is supported through donations from the Augusta Sports Council, Georgia Swimming, Bridgestone, Georgia Bank & Trust, and Augusta Swim Supply.