Competition Drives This DSUSA E-Team Athlete

Talking with Ahalya Lettenberger, her kindness, warmth, and smile are easily felt, and her laughter is contagious. So it’s hard to imagine her on the starting blocks at a pool, completely focused, waiting for the gun to go off so she can swim to win.

Ahalya is a fierce competitor who, at 16, has already emerged onto the international swimming scene as an up-and-comer after winning gold at the 2015 Para-PanAm Games in Toronto in the 100 meter backstroke. Even more impressive than her young age, is that she only began swimming competitively three years prior, and the event was only her second international competition.

“It was the first time I ever medaled,” she said. “My whole family was there, and it was just so amazing to be on top of the podium and hear the national anthem play.”

Ahayla was born with Arthrogyposis Amyoplasia, a muscular-skeletal disorder that means that she has tissue instead of muscle in her lower limbs, affecting her joints, causing limited movement, muscle weakness, and chronic hip pain.

She enjoys swimming because it makes her feel free. “Swimming is one of the few sports where it is completely pain free. It really helps me be free of stress and just be in my own little world,” she said.

Ahalya competes in the distance, freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke for her local club team and competitively with her high school team against other Chicago-area schools. During the school year, she estimates she swims six days a week for about two hours a day.

She also participates on her high school track team, competing in the 400 and 800 meter distances, which adds another hour and a half of practicing four times a week. If that weren’t enough, Ahalya recently added triathlon to her repertoire, so she also bikes one or two times a week, and has a weight training routine she follows.

Why add another sport to the mix? Ahalya attributes it to her competitive drive. A competitive drive that led the 16-year old to take home the silver medal at the Paratriathlon National Championships held in June this year.

“With swimming and track the races are over in a minute or less,” she says. “But with the triathlon you’re competing for over an hour, so it’s so fun to just keep competing.”

In true Ahalya style, she has excelled at the sport of para-triathlon in her short time participating, even winning her first race: the Chicago SuperSprint Triathlon.

“It was rainy that day, so it was all muddy,” she says with her trademark laugh. “But it was really fun.”

Ahayla’s choice of role models reflects her upbeat attitude.

“One of my main role models is [Paralympian] Cortney Jordan. She is so positive and encouraging,” says Ahalya.  “When I was younger at one of my first swimming meets, she gave me one of her medals.  She really inspired me to keep pushing forward and to never give up.”

Ahayla still has that medal, and gets to keep in touch with her mentor at several swim meets every year. This summer she qualified for a meet in Berlin where she’ll be able to swim alongside Jordan.

Given Ahayla’s success is such a short time, it’s easy to imagine her being that same type of role model for another up- and-coming swimmer or triathlete in the future.

As she aims for the Tokyo 2020 games in swimming and triathlon, she has already inspired one person to start participating. “My dad is starting to get into triathlon, and he’s going the next one with me.”

As a member of Disabled Sports USA’s E-Team, the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team, and Dare2Tri’s Development Team, she has a platform to show so many others the benefit of sport.

“Sports in general opens up so many opportunities, and just help you to embrace who you are,” she says. “I am just so excited to show youth and other what you can accomplish with a disability.”

UPDATE:

On June 25, 2017 at the USA Triathlon Paratriathlon National Championships, Ahalya placed second for PTHC women in her first national-level paratriathlon competition in 1:18:51.