Noah Jaffe Takes The Stage Ahead of the 2024 Paralympic Games

Noah Jaffe did not expect to find himself at the award ceremony for the AAU Sullivan Award. “I was shocked when I saw that I was nominated in the first place,” he said ahead of the award ceremony at the New York Athletic Club. 

The AAU Sullivan Award, which has existed since 1930, honors the most outstanding amateur American athlete. In February, a list of 30 athletes were nominated as semi-finalists. A month later, Jaffe was named a finalist along with Caitlin Clark, David Taylor, Emery Lehman, Frederick Richard, and Madisen Skinner

“I know that Katie Ledecky, Ryan Murphy, and Kate Douglass were all nominated,” Jaffe said when asked what the whole process has been like. “I was a bit shocked with [the nomination.] I’m kind of newer on this stage…I didn’t really think that I had a community behind me so it means a lot.”

Jaffe made a huge impression at the 2023 World Para Swimming Championships, earning four medals. On the first day of the competition, he found himself in the final for the 400m freestyle S8—his first senior level international final—and came away with bronze. Later in the meet, he earned his first world title by winning the 100m freestyle S8 in an Americas record time of 59.15. 

The 20-year-old may not have been a well-known name before 2023 Worlds, but he’s certainly on his way to becoming one. At the reception before the presentation of the 94th AAU Sullivan Award, he had a steady stream of guests approaching him and asking for a picture or for him to sign their program. 

Jaffe, a California native, began swimming at age 10. After watching the 2016 Paralympic Games, his medical team told him he was eligible and he decided to try para swimming. “The biggest factor for me getting into sports was my doctors telling me ‘this is an amazing place, you belong here.’” The opportunity to do that for another kid is one of the biggest motivating factors for Jaffe’s plans to go to medical school. 

That’s further down the line though; his 2023 breakthrough prompted him to take a gap year from studying biochemistry at Cal. He traded Berkeley for Colorado Springs and has been training full-time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. He flew in for the award ceremony and he’ll head straight back afterward. 

The move has given Jaffe access to new opportunities. As a member of the Paralympic resident program, he has the full resources of the OTC at his disposal. That includes an on-site coach and consistent long-course training. “I never really trained long-course except for maybe once a month up until this year, so I’ve definitely seen improvements,” said Jaffe. “And with a coach I can get more direct feedback—I had coaches [before] but obviously from afar it’s harder to comment on day to day things so that feedback has been really great. I’m really grateful for that.” 

One of the things that sets the AAU Sullivan Award apart is that in addition to athletic achievements, it also recognizes the athlete’s leadership and character both on and off the field. “It hits on more of a personal level,” Jaffe noted. 

Jaffe acknowledged it’s an honor to be recognized for those qualities, reiterating his surprise that people were following his career. “Just knowing that, in the future I definitely want to be more active both in this sport and the things that I’m passionate about outside of sport now that I have this platform.” 

On the platform of the NYAC stage, Jaffe did not waste his opportunity. As he’s mentioned throughout the nomination process, Jaffe brought up the fact that he was the only para athlete to be nominated for this year’s award. In the long history of the AAU Sullivan award, only one para athlete has won—Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long in 2006. 

“I really hope by having more para athletes nominated for this award that people can start recognizing para athletes because they are amazing athletes,” he told the crowd. “Kids with disabilities need to be aware there’s a place for them in sports.”

Jaffe’s international debut was the 2022 Duel in the Pool. That meet was a big moment for American swimming–it marked the first time American para and non-para athletes competed together. “It’s really not the norm here in the U.S [for para and non-para swimmers to race together]…but all the big swimming countries, they have Paralympic Trials and Olympic Trials all combined together into one meet and a lot of their major domestic meets are all combined. That’s something I’d really love to see in the U.S in the future, especially with LA as the next Games.” 

Jaffe affirmed his plans to keep swimming through the 2028 Los Angeles Games. But before then, he’s focused on his goals for this summer. The U.S Paralympic Trials take place at the University of Minnesota from June 27 – 29. From there, Jaffe is hoping he’ll be headed to Paris for his first Paralympic Games. 

“I got kind of a surprise win last summer. It was really close in the 100 free” Jaffe prefaced when asked about his goals. “I know it’s going to be really tough to do that again. But I have a lot of confidence in my training and my mindset is a lot different than last year…I really think I have the opportunity to dream big. I definitely have some ambitious goals.” 

With about two months to go until Trials, the first step towards achieving those goals, the AAU Sullivan Award ceremony falls at a strange time for Jaffe and other finalists who are Olympic hopefuls. It’s hard to make the choice to step away from training for a weekend–indeed Clark, this year’s AAU Sullivan Award winner, opted against doing so as she was in the midst of WNBA training camp. The choice requires finalists to prioritize something other than training; Jaffe’s comments about normalizing and celebrating para athletes are a prime example of the way many of the finalists made that choice an opportunity to share why it’s important to them to grow their chosen sport. 

“It’s really nice to be able to look back and reflect on the past year, but I know there’s a lot more to do so I’m keeping that in my head,” Jaffe said of balancing this award ceremony and his plans for this summer. 

Whether he’s in the pool, working towards his career goals, or advocating to bring para athletes’ accomplishments into the spotlight, it’s clear that Jaffe has big goals. And now he knows that not only does he have a platform, he’s got a community listening and rooting for him. 

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Coach David
1 month ago

Way to go Noah! Proud of you.

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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