In the January/February Amplitude we listed five first-time Paralympians who have a real shot to earn medals in Tokyo later this year. It’s actually premature to call any of them “Paralympians,” since they haven’t officially earned their spots on Team USA yet. But they’re all heavy favorites to make the roster. All five excelled in international competition in the last half of 2019, before the sports world shut down early last year. Their medal-winning exploits at World Championship events, the Parapan Games, and other high-profile meets mark them as athletes to watch as the 2021 Paralympics approach.
We didn’t have room in the magazine to give much more than a quick thumbnail introduction, so here’s a bit more detail about each of these noteworthy performers.
MeiMei White, Swimming
Personal bests: Gold medals, 2019 Parapan Games (100m breaststroke) and World Paraswimming World Series (100m breaststroke, 400m freestyle)
About MeiMei: Although she’s just shy of 17 years old, White already is a veteran competitor. She entered her first swim meet at five years old, earned an invite to the U.S. National Trials as a 12-year-old, and has trained under powerhouse coach Fred Lamback. She considers the 400 meter freestyle her strongest event and was as surprised as anyone to win a pair of golds in the breaststroke in 2019. A native of China, White was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency in her right leg, resulting in amputation before her second birthday. She subsequently was adopted and grew up in Macon, GA.
She said it: “I love the freedom of being in the water and not having to wear a heavy leg around. I can 100 percent be myself.”
Read more: MeiMei White Seeks to Make a Big Splash
Ezra Frech, High Jump/Long Jump
Personal bests: Gold medal, 2019 World Para Athletics Junior Championships; silver medal, 2019 Parapan Games
About Ezra: He was just 14 when he won that Parapan silver, the youngest American to compete in Lima. He’ll be 16 when the Paralympics arrive, and almost surely will be the youngest member of Team USA if he qualifies. And he’s paying everything forward via Angel City Sports. a nonprofit he and his family established to empower adaptive athletes throughout the United States. The eight-year-old organization already has emerged as a key talent pipeline for future Paralympians. Frech was born missing his left knee and fibula and had the leg amputated above the knee at age two. He also has upper-limb difference on his left hand.
He said it: “We all have a purpose in our life. I found my purpose in track. Finding your purpose and being the best that you can be is something that I feel can help the world go around. If every single person finds a thing that they are meant to do, then the world can become a very special place.”
Read more: Ezra Frech Is Never Alone
Noelle Lambert, Sprinting
Personal best: 4th place, 2019 World Para Athletic Championships (100m dash)
About Noelle: Lambert didn’t begin competing in track and field until after she graduated from college, where she played lacrosse for Massachusetts-Lowell (an NCAA Division I school). In her first track meet, held just weeks after she started training, Lambert outraced an elite field of American sprinters. A few months after that she was in Dubai for the World Championships, squaring off against seasoned international competitors. She finished just hundredths of a second off the podium, setting a new U.S. record for the 100 meters in the process. Lambert lost her left leg above the knee in a moped accident during her freshman year at Lowell. She’s the founder of the Born to Run Foundation, which provides sports-oriented protheses to young athletes.
She said it: “I previously hated running. Before my accident, I was the type of athlete who took a lot of things for granted. I hated going to practice, I hated doing extra work, and I would never do well on run tests. . . . I’m competing in track because I don’t want to use this amputation as a reason not to do something. If anything, I want to use it as a reason to do something.”
Read more: Noelle Lambert’s Next Chapter
Matthew Torres, Swimming
Personal bests: Gold medals, 2019 Parapan Games (100m backstroke, 400m freestyle) and World Paraswimming World Series (200m individual medley)
About Matthew: Torres couldn’t swim a stroke back in 2008, when (as a seven-year-old) he was transfixed by Michael Phelps’ record-breaking Olympic medal haul. By the time Phelps won his last gold medals in 2016, Torres was one of Connecticut’s top prep swimmers—and he already had the 2020 Games in his sights. He achieved his own Phelps-like medal haul at the 2019 Parapan American Games, with two golds and four bronzes. A freestyle specialist, Torres swims for Fairfield University, an NCAA Division I school. He was born with amniotic band syndrome that foreshortened his right leg and resulted in fused digits on both hands.
He said it: “I’m not that far away from my fellow competitors who are in medal contention, and it motivates me and I just try to push harder. It gets me excited, because I know it’s something I’m able to do. It’s not unrealistic to think maybe I can get a silver or maybe even gold, but we’ll see what happens. It’s just about putting in the effort every day.”
Read more: Matt Torres Looks to Build on Impressive Performance
Kevan Hueftle, Track and Field
Personal bests: Gold medal, 2019 Parapan Games (100m dash); silver medals, 2019 Parapan Games (200m) and 2019 World Para Athletic Championships (100m)
About Kevan: He’ll be 36 when the Paralympics begin, twice as old as some of his teammates. But the more significant anniversary for Hueftle is six—the number of years of sobriety he’ll have under his belt by this summer. A strong track athlete back in high school, Hueftle lost his left foot in a hunting accident at age 20 and spiraled into heavy use of painkillers and alcohol. Ten years later, with a family to support and a ranch to run, he cleaned up his life. In the process, he rediscovered his love of running.
He said it: “I am not going to lie and tell you this has been easy, because it is not. But I knew if I kept drinking, I would lose it all. I was in so much pain, physically, mentally, emotionally. I was fighting depression, anxiety, anger, and just drinking all the time so I could forget. [Getting sober] is when my life came back.”
Read more: Kevan Hueftle Had to Beat His Alcoholism