It began as one of the best moments of Haley Beranbaum’s life, though it soon became one of the most disappointing.
And then it became one of the best again.
In July, the 20-year-old Beranbaum, a 2014 graduate of Snohomish’s Glacier Peak High School, was named to the United States swimming team for the upcoming Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She earned her spot with a strong showing at the U.S. team trials … or so she thought.
A few days after being told she was on the team, Beranbaum was informed there had been a miscalculation (in Paralympic swimming, world rankings and other formulas are used to help pick the U.S. team, not trials results alone). She would instead be first alternate, a turn of events that was, she said with understatement, “a little difficult emotionally.”
“It was pretty gut-wrenching,” acknowledged Nathan Manley, her coach. “You have a dream you’re working toward, you think you’re there, you’re very excited about it, and then suddenly you have it pulled away.”
Beranbaum, who was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the time, took two days off to regroup. She then returned to the pool and continued to train with her teammates, though still expecting to be an alternate. But when the Russian team was banned from the Paralympics over a doping and cover-up scandal, additional spots opened up for other countries. The U.S. team was allowed three additional swimmers, including Beranbaum.
The word came from Manley two weeks ago, “and when he told me I was going (to Rio de Janeiro) I freaked out a little,” Beranbaum said. “I jumped up and down. I was very happy. … There was a lot of relief.”
“She was super excited,” Manley said. “And there were some tears.”
The team traveled to Houston for another week of training before flying to Brazil last Friday. The Games begin Wednesday and continue through Sept. 18 at the same venues used during the recent Olympic Games.
The Paralympics are “everything we’ve trained for,” Beranbaum said. “It’s our Olympics. It’s just as big a deal to us as (the Olympics are) to any able-bodied athlete. We’re part of Team USA, and we get to represent our country and do the sport we love at the highest level possible.”
Born with achondroplasia, a form of short-limbed dwarfism, Beranbaum stands 3 feet, 9 inches. Some sports were not practical for her as a younger girl, but swimming seemed like a good option. She started with the StingRay Swim Club of Snohomish County in her early teens, and within a few years she was competing internationally and setting American records in her Paralympic classification of 5, which signifies an athlete of short stature and with other mobility limitations.
Five days after graduating from Glacier Peak, she moved to Colorado Springs, site of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. She lives in a condo and has also taken classes at nearby Pike’s Peak Community College, studying wildlife biology and history. She hopes to get an undergraduate degree and then a master’s degree in the coming years, though those goals are on hold now for swimming.
In her preparations for the Paralympics, Beranbaum said she avoided thinking too much about the possibility of earning medals in her two events, the 50-meter butterfly and the 200 individual medley.
As she explained, “I try not to focus on what could happen. What I try to focus on is what’s happening now and what I can do as an athlete to help me get to the medals podium. But I’ve definitely imagined myself standing up there with the greatest athletes in the world, and saying that I’m one of the best athletes in the world in my event and in my classification.”
Speaking candidly, Manley said a medal for Beranbaum “would be a surprise, though certainly a pleasant one.” She is, he went on, “not super high in the world rankings. … But she’s young, and I’d hope that she would go down there, enjoy the experience, gain some (international) experience, perform well, and then be excited about her future prospects.”
Regardless of how the coming days unfold, the chance to be a Paralympian is “something I’ve always dreamed about,” Beranbaum said. “But if someone had told me (when she was younger) that I’d be here now, I think I would’ve been in shock.”
Swimming, she added, “has been a way for me to show people that I’m just as much an athlete as anybody else. I might be smaller, but I’m an elite-level athlete and now I’m a Paralympian.”