PHOENIX, Arizona, August 25. TODAY's Paralympic Spotlight features Cheryl Angelelli-Kornoelje. The 41-year-old is to Paralympic swimming what Dara Torres is to the Olympics.
Angelelli-Kornoelje has competed in the past three Paralympics after a 14-year absence from the sport from 1984 to 1998. She began swimming competitively at eight years old, but sustained a spinal cord injury in 1984 at the age of 14 when trying out a new start. She hit her head on the bottom of the pool, which broke her neck resulting in paralysis from the mid-chest down.
"After my accident, I didn't think I would ever be able to compete in swimming again at an elite level," Angelelli-Kornoelje said. "After college, I began freelancing as a reporter and I was sent to Atlanta in 1996 to cover the Paralympic Games. As soon as I saw the Paralympics, I was hooked. I came back home and started training."
Once she started back in the pool, it did not take long for Angelelli-Kornoelje to make an impact. Her big return came at the 1998 World Championships in New Zealand.
"Back then, you weren't really selected for the U.S. Team, just as long as you had the minimum qualifying time standard and you had the money to pay for the trip, you got to go," Angelelli-Kornoelje said. "Paralympic Swimming has come a long way since then. For example, in order to make the U.S. Team for the 2006 World Championships, you had to be ranked among the top three swimmers in the world. This has been a positive change. Paralympic swimming is no longer for recreational swimmers, in order to be the best and compete with the best you have to be an elite athlete and committed to training. This has resulted in an attitude shift as well. Coaches and sponsors, no longer view us as disabled swimmers, instead we are viewed and treated as serious athletes."
Since starting her Paralympic journey in 1998, Angelelli-Kornoelje has competed in three Paralympics. In 2000, she competed for the U.S. team the same year in which she was inducted into the Michigan Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame. In 2004, she won two bronze medals in the S4 200 free and 200 free relay 20 point in Athens. She then claimed two silver medals in 2008 in the S4 100 free and the S4 50 free.
"In 2000 at the Sydney Paralympics, it was my first Paralympics and everything was so new and exciting," Angelelli-Kornoelje said of her first Paralympics. "One of the greatest memories was marching into the Olympic Stadium with the entire U.S. Delegation to the cheers of more than 100,000 people. It still gives me goose bumps. Although I didn't medal in Sydney, I came back with an even better prize. I met my husband in Sydney at the Paralympics. Shawn Kornoelje, who is currently the associate head swim coach at Oakland University, was an assistant coach on the 2000 Paralympic Swim Team and we started dating after meeting in Sydney. We were married in 2002, and he has been my coach since 2001."
Four years later, Angelelli-Kornoelje returned to the pinnacle of the sport at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.
"The 2004 Games in Athens were special because I finally reached my goal of standing on the podium at the Paralympics," Angelelli-Kornoelje said. "I won 2 bronze medals in the 200 free and as a member of the women's 4×50 free relay. My husband Shawn was again on staff as a coach in 2004, and both my parents were there to celebrate my accomplishments. They have always been my biggest cheerleaders and supporters."
She continued training in the sport and made the 2008 Paralympic roster as a 40 year old, achieving her best meet yet.
"The 2008 Games were also special especially since I didn't intend on being there," Angelelli-Kornoelje said. "I retired from swimming after the 2004 Games and didn't swim for 2 years. I missed swimming and started training again in 2006. That year, I won 2 gold medals at World Championships and decided to make another Paralympic run, and it was a good decision. At age 40, I swam the fastest I have ever swum and won 2 silver medals in the 50 free and 100 free in the S4 classification. And YES Dara Torres is a huge inspiration."
Contrary to many Paralympic swimmers who find the sport helps enhance their lives, Angelelli-Kornoelje has had to overcome the fact that the sport drastically changed her life to begin with. Without breaking her neck at the bottom of a pool, Angelelli-Kornoelje would have gone on to live a non-paralyzed life. Angelelli-Kornoelje has a profound point of view on her experience.
"Swimming is the sport that took away my life as I knew it in 1984, but swimming is also the sport that gave me back my life," Angelelli-Kornoelje said. "Thanks to Paralympic swimming, I have grown as a person, become more confident in my abilities and learned to live outside my comfort zone. It has challenged me, given me an opportunity to see the world and meet people from all over…including my husband. My life has been richer because of it. As a result, I feel it is important to share my experience with others and encourage and inspire the next generation of athletes."
Angelelli-Kornoelje has used her position within the sport to provide outreach opportunities. She co-produced a documentary film of her life called Untold Dreams. For more information on the film, please visit www.untolddreams.net.
Angelelli-Kornoelje competes in the S4 division in Paralympics competition. S1-S10 are physical classifications, while S11-S13 are for the visually impaired. Everyone is placed within these classifications through the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) functional classification system. This process is required in order to compete in an IPC approved/sanctioned meet.
With the rest of the Swimming World Paralympic Spotlight series being dedicated to Jimi Flowers, we are asking each person to present the impact Flowers had on their lives.
"Jimi was one of those people who you meet for the first time and you have an instant connection with," Angelelli-Kornoelje said. "He was one of the nicest and kindest people I have ever met and I continue to think of him often. He was a great coach but an even greater human being. He did whatever he could to help his athletes become the best they could be. He was the first person to congratulate me after my silver medal in Beijing and I will treasure all the memories of the many swim trips we took together."
Swimming World dedicates the Paralympic Spotlight series to U.S. Paralympic Coach Jimi Flowers. Flowers passed away in July due to a rock climbing accident, and was a driving force behind the conception of this series this year.