The Most Decorated Paralympian: Part 1
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Trischa Zorn-Hudson is one of the most successful athletes in history. She won 55 medals over 7 Paralympics. The California native and University of Nebraska swimmer was recently inducted into the International Paralympic Hall of Fame this summer in London. Today we catch up with Trischa in this great Part One (of Two) interviews, learn about her journey, how she became the first-ever disabled person to earn a full athletic scholarship to a D1 NCAA university, and how the Paralympics Games has evolved since she first started swimming.
What specifically attracted you to the sport of swimming?
Well, I think one of the major things was it was natural for me to be in the water. I love the water and every aspect of it. Of course, being a competitive swimmer was a whole other level. With my vision, it allowed me to adapt to a sport that I could be competitive in and be able to achieve the goals I set out for myself. Swimming is a sport that allows you to be free and not really restricted in any way.
Were you born blind?
Yeah. I was born with aniridia, which is the lack of iris -- the color part of the eye. Your iris works like a lens of the camera. So when I didn’t have that part of the eye, there was nothing to refract. It was an open lens. Any bright light, I was constantly squinting. I had cataracts. That limited my vision. I would have to count my strokes from one end of the pool in an outdoor pool. Then if you go to an indoor pool, if there’s not enough lighting, it’s pretty dark, and I’d have to do the same thing. Lighting was everything. I was the only one in my family that had it. It was a genetic condition that happened to me. People may say it’s a detriment, but to me, it was a blessing, because it made me the person and shaped the values I have today.
At what point did you know you wanted to continue swimming at the elite level?
I think you’re a product of your environment. When you’re around your swimming community at Mission Viejo [where Trischa began swimming], you’re going to live, eat, and breath swimming. Everyone wants to be the best they can be. With that support of the coaches, they allowed you to believe in yourself and really reach your individual potential. Through that, it gave me confidence. In the back of my mind, there was always that extra push of people and society saying, “Just because you have a disability, you can’t achieve certain levels of a sport.” I think that motivated me to break the barrier of people limiting my expectations.
What was your childhood like, both inside the pool and outside the pool?
Kids are going to be kids. When you’re young, I went through the whole name-calling. Being looked at because people didn’t understand why people like myself would have to look at things closely. I couldn’t see the pace clock. That was difficult. But again, I had really strong and supportive teammates and coaches and family. That made it easier. It was always difficult with people who I came into contact with who didn’t know who I was and what my eye condition was. Outside of swimming, school was difficult. I couldn’t see the board. Basically, from elementary school through junior high, I was strictly an auditory learner. I couldn’t see the chalkboard when they were writing things. I had to listen. I did the best I could. In high school, I got assisted. The teachers would provide me with help. If they had a projector or slides, they’d give me copies of them. In college, that’s when I had adapted student services, and I had note takers. I think it got easier from outside of the pool the older I became.
But in the pool, that was one of the reasons I liked swimming. I never had an issue with someone giving me a difficult time because of my vision. Or coaches. I never had that. I believe that the coaches I did have, they didn’t treat me differently because of my vision, nor did I want them to. They would be very supportive, saying, “What do you need?” Or my teammates would let me know when to go or what my time was.
You followed your club coach to various training locations around the country. What made training with that coach so special?
I think people with physical disabilities are always having to answer the question of, “Well what is this, what is that?” Just not having to do that, and staying focused, and not really change a lot of things. They understood what my needs were. They understood what I wanted to accomplish. They knew what I needed in order to be able to achieve my goals at that time. When I left and graduated from college, the coach at Mission at that time, he had gone to the college level. There was no going back and training there. So I would come to Indiana and train with a coach here, and then I eventually just stayed here to be able to train with him.
So from college, I had a college coach for all four years. Then in the summer, I trained with Bob Waymouth with the Riviera club. I trained with him for 8-10 years.
You were the first disabled athlete to earn a full division one athletic scholarship, swimming for the University of Nebraska. Why did you go there, and what was your experience like?
I wanted to go to a college that had a good undergraduate in education. That was my major – education. I wanted to continue swimming. I wanted a balance. I didn’t want to go to a university strictly for swimming. I wanted to go for my career. Swimming is just a small entity of what my life is. At that time, swimming wasn’t professional. I had to think of my future. I didn’t really want to attend any CA schools, but I didn’t want to go too far. Education and they had a good adaptive student services department for students with physical disabilities. That played a role as well. There were also two girls I swam with at Mission Viejo that were going to Nebraska, too.
55 medals, the most in Paralympic history. What one stands out the most?
They are all different and every Paralympics Games is different in every way, but the last one in Athens meant the most. I had gone through so much personal stuff, in 2004, my Mom had passed away. She had been to every Games, and to be there, and know that it was my last Games, she wasn’t there… At my age, it was significant to be at that level. So that was the most memorable one.
Talk about the things you’ve noticed along the way. You’ve been to 7 Paralympics. How has the sport changed?
Every Games has a significant difference. For example, in 1992, that was the first time at the Paralympics Games we were able to hear our own individual national anthem. That was a big thing. We weren’t able to hear that before. It was usually a Games anthem. In 1996, we were able to have the same venues as the Olympic Games. In 2000, having similar uniform funding. And then 2004, you were experiencing the incentive money for your achievements for your Games, getting paid for your medals. That’s huge. Endorsements. When I was swimming, I had one sponsor, but they did a lot with disabled sports. They were one of the first who sponsored athletes with disabilities. The people I swam with knew, we were the “founders” knowing something great was going to happen. The London Paralympic Games showed how it’s evolved.
Stay tuned for Part Two with Trischa next week. And if YOU have great swim stories to share with us, please email me at Trials.Tribulations.2012@Gmail.com or contact me on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.