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Something to prove: The story of Amanda Everlove

Amanda Everlove, a former Paralympic medalist for Team USA, is currently a sixth-year pharmacy student at ONU. (Northern Review photo/ Grant Pepper)

Amanda Everlove thought- no, she knew- she was just like everybody else. She could do the same things as her friends, and sometimes do them better.

But people treated her differently after the accident.

She swam the same times and performed the same in school. But now she was labeled an ‘inspiration.’ She didn’t understand. She was nine years old.

“Before, I was considered a ‘good swimmer.’ I was competitive and swam with the older kids,” Everlove said. “And afterwards, I was doing pretty much the same things, but all the sudden I was ‘inspirational,’ and I just didn’t understand it.”

Now, she still doesn’t quite understand. She is 27 years old, a sixth-year pharmacy student at Ohio Northern, and four years removed from being an internationally recognized Paralympian swimmer for Team USA.

But she’s never liked being called an ‘inspiration.’

“The problem with the word ‘inspiration,’ when it’s applied to people with disabilities, is that it becomes very demeaning. If feels like people are proud of you for leaving your house,” Everlove said.

In order to shake this stigma, she felt that she had to prove herself.

“I felt like I had to prove to them that I was actually good, and not just good for someone with a disability,” Everlove said.

And prove herself she did.

***

The accident happened in 1999, when Everlove was nine years old and living in Valencia, CA, a suburb less than an hour north of Los Angeles.

It was a horseback riding accident in which Everlove tore her entire brachial plexus in her right arm, paralyzing it forever.

“Pretty much, if there’s a nerve that goes through that arm, it was torn during the accident,” Everlove said.

Though Everlove was considered an advanced swimmer for her age before the accident, she had doubts about her ability to perform afterwards.

“I didn’t think that I could swim afterwards,” Everlove said. “And I don’t know where this idea got into my nine-year old head, but I thought that they wouldn’t allow me on the team.”

Her parents, who had always pushed Everlove to swim (mainly for safety reasons, Everlove claims, because in California “every other house has a pool”), found a hydrotherapy treatment center where she could train.

Therapists worked with her in the water to try to regain limited motion in her arm. It was there, in therapy, where she learned that she would be able to compete again.

But in her return to the pool, sometimes the mental obstacles that came with her disability outweighed the physical ones.

“There was a point where I did start to feel sorry for myself and think, ‘I can’t compete against these people, they’ve got two working arms,’” Everlove said.

Then her natural stubbornness would trump any feelings of self-pity.

“I was just incredibly stubborn and incredibly competitive. I hated to lose and I wanted to be first,” Everlove said. “And that was with everything; school, swimming, other sports… I didn’t like people to be better than me.”

“One of my earliest phrases, apparently, was ‘I do this myself.’ So after the accident, I guess not much had changed.”

Everlove was out to prove herself to her peers, and to those who called her ‘inspirational.’ And in six years, she would compete for the first time on an international stage.

“I got my butt kicked,” Everlove said.

Internal flame, sparked. Challenge accepted.

***

What Amanda Everlove means by ‘getting her butt kicked’ might be different than what most people mean.

By July 2005, Everlove had finished her freshman year of high school (and her family had since moved to Wichita, KS) and she had qualified for an international Paralympic meet held in Portland, OR.

She was forced to compete in the 100-meter butterfly, a race in which she had no experience.

“I touched one end of the pool, after 50 meters, and my mom thought I wasn’t going to leave it,” Everlove said. “She was really worried about me actually finishing this race.”

“I took my time and made it all the way back and thought, ‘I’m never doing that again, that was terrible, my time was terrible, I just got my butt kicked.’ And then I ended up ninth in the world.”

“So I thought, if it felt that bad, and I didn’t know what I was doing, I can get better.”

Ninth in the world. A disappointment for the medal-minded Everlove, but at the same time a new source of inspiration.

“That’s when I saw that I had no excuses,” Everlove said.

After that meet, Everlove decided that she wanted to go to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Paralympics. She wanted to reach the next level.

With her parents’ permission, she spent her senior year of high school living at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, as she trained for the Paralympics that coming summer. She attended St. Mary’s High School, a five-minute drive from the facility.

Under her beloved coach, Jimi Flowers, Everlove improved her times and qualified to compete in Beijing for Team USA. She would win three silver medals (in the 100-meter butterfly, the 200-meter individual medley and the 50-meter freestyle), finish fourth in the 100-meter freestyle, and qualify for all but two of the seven races in her first Paralympics.

“I made the team and I was like, ‘Oh. Well now I want to get a medal,’” Everlove said. “And I ended up with three.”

After Beijing, Everlove had to decide on a college. She wanted to study chemical engineering and also swim, and while she considered her ‘final three’ schools to be Ohio Northern, Tulane University and St. Mary’s College (IN), she chose St. Mary’s.

But after a semester at St. Mary’s, Everlove’s times were dipping and the coaching staff was not willing to take time to accommodate her needs.

“They would give the team a workout, but I needed something that’s modified. And I can modify them, I just need to clear it with the coach. But they weren’t willing to work with me,” Everlove said. “It’s not like they were bad coaches, they just weren’t willing to put in any extra effort for me.”

With the 2012 Summer Paralympics in the near future, Everlove decided to transfer after her freshman year. She went back home to Kansas and went to Wichita State for the ensuing fall semester, and then decided to go back to Colorado Springs for more training. She would take classes at the nearby University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

But tragically, Flowers had died the previous summer in an accident while climbing Capitol Peak near Aspen, CO.

Without Flowers there to coach her, and with the lack of academic stability that came with taking classes while also keeping up an intensive training schedule, Everlove found herself searching for answers.

“It felt like I was going nowhere and it sucks to devote 20-30 hours a week of time, effort, emotions, and not see results,” Everlove said. “I wasn’t seeing any results with swimming, and sure I was doing OK with school, but I wasn’t going to graduate in any reasonable time.”

So after 18 months in Colorado Springs, Everlove found herself college-searching once again. She was 21 years old, and she wanted desperately to prepare herself for a future after swimming.

“I knew swimming was going to end, and I didn’t have anything to fall back on. So I was looking for a career or school option,” Everlove said.

Everlove was still in Colorado Springs during the summer of 2011 when she saw ONU swim coach Peggy Ewald there as well. The two were close, as Ewald had recruited her while she was in high school and had also coached her as a member of Team USA since 2007.

Ewald was there to coach in a Paralympic meet, and when she saw the distressed Everlove, she approached her to ask what was wrong.

“Peggy has this really incredible ability to read people. And I guess sometimes it’s obvious when people are unhappy, but at that point she had known me since 2007, and she knew me well enough to just look at me and know that something was wrong,” Everlove said.

That conversation, on a bright June day at a table outside of the Olympic training facility, would change Everlove’s life forever.

***

“All she did was sit me down at a table and say ‘What’s wrong, what’s going on?’ And I just started crying.”

Amanda Everlove needed someone to talk to.

The 2012 Summer Paralympics were just one year away, and Everlove also wanted to pursue a quality college education, one that she had yet to find at her three previous schools. She was running out of time.

“We sat at this table outside the Olympic training center, and I just remember that athletes were walking by and I was just crying, and Peggy was comforting me,” Everlove said. “I was so emotional at that time, because it seemed like nothing was going right.”

“Many at that time put life on hold to train for a games and then flounder after not having a solid plan to move forward with life,” Ewald said. “Having shared some of Amanda's experiences from 2007-2011, I was aware of her circumstances and took the time to help talk out her options.”

And in that conversation, Ewald offered Everlove the chance to come to Ohio Northern. She could swim for her and study pharmacy, which, although it was not chemical engineering, seemed like a good choice for the science-minded Everlove.

But what struck Everlove wasn’t just Ewald’s acceptance of her. It was also her willingness to pursue her as a swimmer, an experience which is rare for Paralympic athletes.

“Let’s be honest, most colleges coaches aren’t recruiting me. They’re not. I’m not going to score them points, and on D-I teams I’d take up more space than I’d actually help,” Everlove said. “I look back, and it was very important to me that Peggy felt that I was a good fit for the team, and actively recruited me. And even though I didn’t come here [initially], I still felt like ONU was a good place.”

Everlove, who had been accepted by ONU during her initial college search, started at Northern during the 2011 fall semester. She was a 21-year old freshman.

“It was rough. Fortunately, there were people my age still on campus at that point, so I made friends with a lot of seniors. It’s not that the freshmen were bad, it’s just that at that point, because not only had I lived away for school, but also my senior year of high school I’d lived away from home, I’d been disconnected from home for years.”

Everlove swam for Ohio Northern that winter, competing mainly in the 200-meter butterfly, while also preparing for the ensuing 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. In London, Everlove finished eighth in the 100-meter butterfly and eighth in the 200-meter individual medley.

And after the 2012-13 ONU swim season, Everlove would be done with competitive swimming. She had spent nearly 20 years in the pool, having started swim lessons in California as a four-year old.

She had won three Paralympic medals, competed in two Summer Paralympics, and was headed towards a career in pharmacy. She had finally proven herself.

***

Not surprisingly, switching to write with her left hand came fairly easily to Everlove after the accident.

“But you don’t realize that you hold the paper down with one hand and write with the other, and so learning how to do that was hard,” Everlove said. “It was the little things like that.”

Another ‘little thing’ was cutting. Cutting with scissors, for third graders, is almost an everyday ritual. That was a struggle. So was using water fountains, as most had only a right handed knob.

Now, Everlove is more concerned with things like cutting steak.

“I usually only eat steak around my family, so that one of them will cut it for me,” Everlove said.

But aside from the hardships- everything from the ‘little things’ to being treated differently- Everlove says that having a disability hasn’t always been a burden.

“I think I’ve become very comfortable with myself, just growing into my own and realizing that it’s OK to be different,” Everlove said. “It’s not that my disability made me independent; it's actually made me fight for independence because people want to do things for me, and I don’t let them.”

“And I wouldn’t be able to say ‘I’m a Paralympian’ if I didn’t have my disability, so the pride of being able to say ‘I’m a Paralympian’ also comes with explaining why.”

Everlove says that her disability is “on the borderline” of being immediately visible, which has forced her to make the decision: to hide her arm or not.

“Some disabilities are really obvious, and some aren’t so obvious,” Everlove said. “Mine is kind of on the border, so I see both worlds; what’s it like to live with a disability that people notice, and what it’s like when people ask you, ‘What’s even wrong with you?’”

“I don’t hide it, which is funny because actually, if I were to hide it, it would make it more obvious. I’m not ashamed of it, in any way, but I also don’t go out of my way to tell people about it.”

Everlove is currently living in Ada while doing pharmacy rotations. While she no longer swims competitively, she still stays involved with the sport by coaching. She has coached at the Hardin County YMCA, as well as at pools near her family’s home in Wichita.

“Hopefully, once I find out where I’m living and get a job, I can continue coaching,” Everlove said. “It’s a really great way for people to grow and learn about themselves; there’s a lot of skills that swimming teaches. I would like to see kids gain self-awareness not only mentally, because it does challenge you in a lot of ways, but also physically.”

Those who swim under Everlove’s guidance will be coached by a three-time Paralympic medalist; one who overcame a life-altering accident, the death of a mentor, and a life-path crisis by the age of 21.

She is one who has conquered the lowered expectations of her peers and supervisors since the age of nine, and one who continues to conquer them to this day. She is one who was stubbornly competitive, a trait that she used to her advantage.

As far as swimming goes, she has far surpassed the expectations of others, and has somehow met her own.

She has nothing left to prove.

“I did that, I accomplished that, I was among the best in the world at one point, and nobody can ever take that away from me,” Everlove said of her Paralympic experience.

“Before, I felt like I always had to prove that I was the best, or that I had to show people… But once I did that, I no longer felt that I had anything to prove. It gave me that internal pride, or confidence, knowing that I no longer had anything to prove to anyone.”