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Mount St. Mary alum a rising star in paralympic swimming

Never gave a thought to stop swimming after blinding disease

Published: June 10, 2023   
Chris Pose
Olivia Chambers, a 2021 Mount St. Mary Academy graduate, competes in the Missouri Valley Conference Championships in Iowa City in February.

In her formative years, Olivia Chambers was just another happy-go-lucky kid who liked to swim fast. Really fast.

But it was her triumph outside of the water that set her apart from the majority of her peers during her years competing for Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock. And that triumph continues today as the college athlete continues to make a name for herself in paralympic swimming.

In December, Chambers won three medals including two golds at the U.S. Paralympic National Championships at the Mecklenburg County Aquatics Center in Charlotte, N.C.. The wins made her the first para-swimming national champion in the history of her school, the University of Northern Iowa. She was also named Swimmer of the Meet, having accumulated the best overall point total among the competitors.

Then in April, she was named to Team USA competing in the 2023 World Para Swimming Championships to be held this summer in England. Chambers made the team based on her dominant performance at the Citi Para Swimming World Series in Minneapolis where she recorded personal best swims in every race and earned spots for team selection in the 100-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley.

Along the way, she has set multiple American records and, by the way, did all this in addition to competing on scholarship for the Div. I Panther swimming team where she placed seventh in the mile and finaled in the 500 free at conference this year.

“I would say my adjustment to college, honestly, has been pretty easy,” she said in the mother of all understatements. “(College) wasn’t too much of a difference, although it is a lot more of a team atmosphere, which is exciting. You do a lot more things as a team, and you compete more as a team and how your team does as a whole is more important, usually, than how you do. It’s fun to cheer for your teammates.”

With each outing, Chambers is finding how many people she has cheering for her as well, dating back to her junior year at MSM when a sudden onset of Parinaud syndrome changed the course of her life. The condition causes lesions on the brain stem that caused her eyes to not function properly.

“In August 2019, I was sitting in my room reading a book,” she said. “All of a sudden, I realized the words were so blurry I couldn’t see them anymore. I had to hold everything so close to see it. Then one day, I just randomly went cross-eyed, and I could not uncross my eyes. We ended up in the emergency room.”

The condition, which has left her legally blind, has prompted multiple second opinions, medical specialists and surgery, but never the thought of giving up swimming, a sport she’s excelled at since she was 4.

"After losing my sight, I never imagined it would lead me to achieving my lifelong dream of representing the United States," said Chambers in an article put out by UNI. "Not only am I super excited to join a team with some of the best para swimmers in the world, but I can't wait to race other swimmers in my classification.”

Those closest to Chambers, however, aren’t particularly surprised by her continued improvement and subsequent dominance.

“There are a lot of people who would probably just give up or quit or say, ‘Look, this is insane. I need to go do something else,’” said Carl Auel, head senior coach for her former club, Little Rock Dolphins. “Olivia just does not, would not, give up.”

With the wins has come name recognition and notoriety among youngsters looking to follow in Chambers’ wake.

“It’s all still crazy because I feel like it all happened so fast,” she said. “I still feel like there are several para-swimmers out there who are better than me and I look up to them.”

The 11th edition of the Para Swimming World Championships is slated for July 31 to Aug. 6 in Manchester, England.

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