While Cailin Currie’s high school classmates are starting senior year back in Massachusetts, she’s getting ready for the swim meet of her life, 5,000 miles and a continent away.
She’s a rookie member of the U.S. Paralympic team competing at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – and will dive into the same pool where Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky broke records just weeks ago.
“I’m excited – I like new challenges,” said 18-year-old Currie, who attended Perkins School for the Blind from 2006 to 2010.
Currie will compete in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle, the 100-meter butterfly and the 100-meter backstroke in the S13 low vision class against others with similar visual impairments. Her mom, Elaine, will be in Rio to cheer her on in person.
The Paralympic Games, established in 1960, are held a few weeks after each Olympic Games. The United States is sending 267 athletes this year to compete in 22 different sports against participants from 160 countries. The games take place Sept. 7-18.
Currie was born completely blind, with no irises in her eyes, so doctors suggested swimming lessons at just six months old to help improve her mobility. She eventually gained some sight and now has low vision, but that early exposure sparked an enduring passion for the water.
She competed for the Danvers Dolfins, then the North Shore Sharks YMCA teams – always against people who were sighted. As she got faster and faster, her mother suggested she make the Paralympic Games her goal. In 2012, she traveled to North Dakota to compete in the Paralympic trials, where she swam for the first time against other people with visual impairments.
It was a revelation for Currie, who became close friends with many of the swimmers she met that summer. They bonded over shared struggles to see the wall clearly and the changing placement of flags at different pools, as well as sensitivity to bright lights. She discovered “tappers,” or people who use a stick from the pool deck to let them know they’ve reached the wall, used by people with more severe visual impairments than hers.
Currie didn’t make the 2012 team. But she set her sights on Rio, juggling a full course load in culinary arts at Essex Technical High School with near-daily two-hour practices and twice-weekly weight-lifting sessions. She’s swum in meets across the country and at the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in Canada and Scotland over the last four years.
On Sept. 8, when she dives off the starting block for her first race at Olympic Aquatics Stadium, Currie will finally make a longtime dream come true.
“I always watched the Olympics on TV and said, ‘I want to be one of those people one day,’” she said.