19-year-old Olivia Chambers set a new S13-class Para American record in the 400 IM at the Minneapolis Futures Championship.
Her time of 5:21.68 shaved off nearly two seconds from the previous record posted by World Record holder and three-time Paralympic champion Rebecca Meyers in 2012.
Chambers competed at Futures with Panther Aquatic Club to prepare for her sophomore year at the University of Northern Iowa. Having grown up in Arkansas, she transitioned to PAC due to the team’s location in Iowa. Prior to her move, she swam for the Little Rock Arkansas Dolphins.
Chambers’ vision was uncompromised until August 2019 when she suddenly developed blurred vision. Soon after, she went cross-eyed and was taken to the emergency room where she had MRIs and CAT scans done. The images confirmed that she did not have a brain tumor, but did not provide answers for the cause of her visual impairment.
In February 2021, Chambers was finally diagnosed with Parinaud syndrome, a condition where lesions on the brain stem prevent the eyes from moving up and down. Upon her diagnosis, Chambers was classified as legally blind.
Although she was registered with her disability in early 2021, she did not become an official para-athlete until April 2022. The International Paralympic Committee requires athletes with visual impairment to submit medical documentation and undergo evaluation before their times are considered for para-sport.
While she is considered a new para-athlete, she has spent the last few years learning how to swim without her sight. To cope with her lost vision, she patched one of her goggles’ lenses and counted her strokes to measure her distance to the wall.
Chambers qualified for Futures in the 400 IM at the 2022 Missouri Valley Conference Championship where she swam a personal best time of 4:33.53. She was therefore seeded at Futures with her SCY time and managed to qualify for finals where she placed 26th.
Though Chambers broke the S13-class Para American record by a significant margin, she has the potential to bring the record down even further. Her best time since her vision degenerated enough to be considered legally blind is 5:16.39, which she swam last summer at the 2021 Speedo Sectionals in Lenexa, Kansas.
On the UNI student news site, Chambers shared that she will be shooting for the 2024 Paralympics. She said, “Every time I jump in the water, I have so much fun and that’s really what has helped me get through all my eye struggles.”
The 2024 Paralympic event schedule does not include the 400 IM, but Chambers can contest in the 200 IM.