The biggest hurdle for Makayla Nietzel in making the 2018 National A Team for paralympic swimming was simply getting started.
The 15-year-old Crystal Lake girl, who is legally blind, usually swims meets against nonhandicapped athletes and fares well. The trick for her mother, Terri, was finding out how to get into disability meets last year.
Terri scoured the internet for several hours and eventually got Makayla into the Fred Lamback Disability Meet in Augusta, Georgia, last October. Then, Makayla swam in the Can Am Para-Swimming Championships in December.
Once she competed at the meets, Makayla’s talent was evident. She made a favorable impression right away with USA Paralympics swimming coach Queenie Nichols at both meets. Then, she further enhanced her status by winning a relay gold medal, an individual silver and two individual bronzes at the 2018 World Para Swimming World Series in Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy, in May.
By competing in that meet, Nietzel is classified internationally and officially a member of the U.S. National A Team for paralympic swimming. Nichols and her staff actually coached Nietzel in Italy.
“I didn’t think I was going to finish as well as I did,” said Nietzel, who will be a sophomore at Prairie Ridge. “I didn’t realize how big of a meet it was until afterward. It’s part of the Para Swimming World Series. That’s huge. I honestly went there, I was going to get classified and try to swim my best and place whatever I placed. I didn’t expect to do that well. I’m very proud of it.”
Nietzel now is No. 3 in the World Para Swimming rankings for the 200-meter individual medley, No. 5 in the 100 freestyle and No. 8 in the 50 freestyle. Her big target will be swimming with the National A Team in the 2020 Paralympics.
Terri thinks her daughter’s versatility bodes well for being selected to swim for the national team.
“In the main Olympics, they can take the best freestyler, the best breaststroker, best backstroker and send them,” she said. “The paralympics don’t have the same kind of sponsorships. They need to take their best well-rounded swimmers. If she keeps it up, she’s got a shot.”
And there is no reason to believe Makayla will be slowing down.
Makayla was born with albinism, a genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in skin, hair and eyes, leading to vision problems. She also has Asperger’s syndrome, the highest-functioning form of autism.
Not that she lets either of them slow her down. While swimming with Crystal Lake Central co-op, a team with athletes from Cary-Grove, Central, Crystal Lake South and Prairie Ridge, she won four championships for athletes with disabilities, all in record-setting performances at the IHSA Girls Swimming and Diving Meet last year.
Prairie Ridge graduate Valerie Tarazi, a four-time Northwest Herald Girls Swimmer of the Year who is headed to Auburn, was a teammate and a mentor for Nietzel last year.
“Makayla is a huge inspiration to me,” Tarazi said. “She’s an outstanding swimmer, and what she has accomplished amazes me. She has such a bright future.”
Nietzel’s vision causes problems with depth perception, which puts her at a disadvantage on turns against nondisabled swimmers. She often comes close to banging her head on the wall before turns. Her quality of vision while racing varies with each pool.
“I have good peripheral [vision],” she said. “I can see somewhat in the lanes next to me when I go to breathe. In a darker pool or a super-bright pool, I can’t see as well. If it’s moderate lighting, I can see pretty decent.”
Nietzel swims with the McHenry County Sage YMCA Piranhas and coach Ed Richardson in the spring and summer, then with Central’s co-op team for high school. She began swimming competitively four years ago and has thrived.
Pete and Terri Nietzel’s 11-year-old twins, Michael and Isabella, also swim for the Piranhas.
Paralympic swimming is split into different groups according to disabilities. The S11 swimmers are completely blind, S12 are somewhere in between and S13, which is Nietzel’s classification, are legally blind.
Swimming gives Nietzel a competitive outlet and a vehicle for socialization. She plans to swim in college and might study meteorology, a subject with which she has been fascinated since childhood.
“It wasn’t cartoons; she knew the reporters on the Weather Channel,” Terri Nietzel said. “She knew cloud formations and would say, ‘I think we have a bad storm coming.’ I think she was 4.”
Makayla Nietzel was unable to compete with the National A Team this year because she just became internationally classified. She will be able to do that next year, and hopefully in the next paralympics.
“I think if I keep working really hard and trying more events, showing them I can swim more events well, my chances are really high,” Makayla said.