Swim captain piles on Paralympic medals

November 12, 2012 — Features, Sports

Jordan on Sept. 3 following the medal ceremony for the 100-meter freestyle. She also took silver in the 50 and 400 freestyle events, and bronze in the 100-meter backstroke.

Senior Cortney Jordan takes three silvers and a bronze at the London Paralympics, matching her haul from 2008.

By Kevin Matthews

Although senior Cortney Jordan comes from a family of competitive swimmers, she was reluctant to take up the sport herself as a youngster and often thought of quitting. Born with cerebral palsy, she suffered disappointments at meets with able-bodied athletes.

“I was always last. Paralympics allowed me to realize that I was a good swimmer,” said the 21-year-old from Henderson, Nev., who started racing at age 7 and discovered competition for swimmers with disabilities at 13.

Today, Jordan deserves to be known as a phenomenon in the water. She owns eight Paralympic medals, four apiece from the games in London and Beijing, and still more oversized coin from three world championships. From the London Paralympics held Aug. 29–Sept. 9, she brought home three silvers and a bronze.

In order to medal this time around, Jordan had to hone her technique, because the field was much faster than four years ago. The record time that she had set for her classification in the 50-meter freestyle in Beijing, for example, would not have garnered a bronze this year for Team USA. In London, Jordan took silver in that event instead of gold, while improving from 33.84 to 33.18 seconds.

In her six events in London, she clocked five personal bests.

How did she do it? Jordan credits her training this summer in Minnesota, where she lived with Paralympic Team USA co-head coach Tom Franke and his family. In Franke’s daughters, a runner and another swimmer, she found ideal companions for cross training, including cycling, running and P90X home workouts.

Cross training helped Jordan to extend her workouts beyond her allotted pool time. Her coach did not want her in the water past the morning session, she said, because she is prone to fatigue.

“If I work out too much, then my body will shut down. I’ll lose my ability to walk, basically,” Jordan explained. “It gets so tired it just stops working. But if I don’t work out enough, then it gets really tight, and it’s hard to use. So it’s a fine balance.”

In the pool, Jordan concentrates on kicking hard and efficiently with her right leg to compensate for her much weaker left side. Cerebral palsy affects her left side only, “but it hinders my balance in the water, and balance is super-crucial in swimming. I’m the equivalent of someone who doesn’t use their legs.”

To raise her left arm out of the water, Jordan bears down with her right hip while extending her right arm, also breathing on the same stroke. When she first competed, she was not able to lift the arm above the water and ended up dragging her entire left side.

Particularly difficult for Jordan are simultaneous motions of the two sides. That’s why she’s had most of her success in freestyle competition and the backstroke. Still, she is a tough all-around competitor, taking bronze in 2008 in the 200-meter individual medley, which includes breaststroke and butterfly, and just missing a medal in that event this year.

Crying for joy on podium after podium, Jordan relished her victories in London. But she ranks at least two other recent honors higher.

One of those was being selected as captain of the U.S. Paralympic swim team, an “incredible” group of people competing across 14 classifications.

“We have people who have no arms and no legs, and they can swim. We have people who are quadriplegics and they’re swimming. We have blind swimmers. Any excuse you can think of to not swim, or to not do something – they have overcome so many challenges. I don’t even feel like I can compare to any of them,” said Jordan.

Also this year, she took athletes as young as 8 under her wing at a meet in Ohio designed partly to introduce the next generation of U.S. Paralympic swimmers. More than one girl with cerebral palsy told Jordan she wanted to grow up to be like her.

On campus, many people don’t know about Jordan’s accomplishments in front of as many as 18,000 people in a swimming venue. She said that suits her fine. She chose CLU because of the beautiful setting, the short walks to class, the teaching program and a swimming team that really wanted her to join.

“I spent a lot of my life hiding my disability, because I wasn’t really proud of it,” said Jordan, who is the Regals team captain. “[My teammates] are proud of me.”

In addition to swim team captain, she is the student director of the Writing Center, an officer in Club Teach, a member of the Phi Alpha Theta history honors society, and an aspiring elementary teacher in the liberal studies major. Under assistant professor of exercise science Janie Rider, Jordan has taken an interest in adaptive physical education for kids with disabilities.

“My main goal in life is to help people,” she said. “I want to do that. And so wherever I’m needed, I’m sure I’ll end up.”

Jordan also intends to compete at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.