Finding Freedom: The Story of Paralympic Swimmer, McClain Hermes

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

By Molly Griswold, Swimming World College Intern.  

McClain Hermes’ highlighter-yellow shoes carried her across the blue pool deck as her name flashed on the screen behind her. She walked steadily to the blocks, one hand gripped lightly to her cane and the other to the arm of her tapper – two things Hermes trusted most to guide her. She stood behind the blocks of the pool comfortably, like she had done so many times before. Hermes listened as her name and country were announced in unison, something she had always dreamed of hearing. Cold water chilled her skin as she placed her feet on the touchpad, fingers curled around the backstroke bar: a familiar place, with an unfamiliar feeling. Unfamiliar because this time, the American Flag on her cap reminded her of her dream.

The dream she had realized in that moment was one she had thought about since she was a young summer league swimmer.

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

“At four years old, I told my parents I wanted to go to the Olympics. At the time, I could barely swim 25 yards and was bound and determined to [do it],” Hermes recalls.

The road to the world stage, however, was not an easy one to follow. Her family noticed problems with her vision at age two, which began to worsen along with the confusion of her pediatricians. Eventually, it was discovered that her retinas were detaching. After immediate surgery on her left eye but prior to corrective surgery on her right, something happened.

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

“My right retina detached while I was at school eating lunch in third grade. All of a sudden, I felt a ‘pop’ and a rush of air in my right eye, and then everything went black. So I went through the rest of my school day, like you do when you go blind,” Hermes laughs.

As she grew older, turns became an issue. “When I would try to flip-turn at the wall, I would hit my head, and I just kept on missing the wall and running into the lane rope.” Although Hermes’ parents were concerned that it was no longer safe for their daughter to swim, her coaches sought to find a way to keep her in the pool.

After researching swim techniques for vision impaired athletes, Hermes discovered para-swimming, an adaptation of the sport for athletes with disabilities. A person at the end of the lane uses a “tapper” to signal that the swimmer is approaching the wall. Over the years, Hermes has used a tennis ball on a broomstick, a PVC pipe, a golf ball retriever and now a window washer.

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

Despite all these challenges, Hermes did not discard her initial dream. Instead, she realized it in a different form: “We started using the tapper at my first Paralympic meet when I was 12. At that meet, I realized that I had to switch my focus from the Olympics to the Paralympics. I knew that going to the Paralympics was something that I could do, and I did it.”

Hermes qualified for the 2016 Paralympic Games, becoming the youngest member of Team USA at just 15 years old. “I loved it,” Hermes speaks of traveling to Rio de Janeiro, where she placed fifteenth in the 100-meter breaststroke, fourteenth in the 400-meter freestyle, and eighth in the 100-meter backstroke (her first Paralympic final).

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

“It was so crazy to me to be swimming at the Paralympic Games. It’s a feeling you can’t describe, because it’s something that I’ve been dreaming of since I was four, and I was accomplishing at 15.”

When Hermes is not competing, she trains for her dream and finds peace in the water.

“Swimming to me means freedom, because I can get in the pool and there are only two things I can run into: the wall and the lane line. Where in life, I can run into everything, mentally and physically. In the pool, I can swim for hours and hours and hours and never run into anything and nobody will ever know that I’m blind.”

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

As Hermes describes what swimming means to her, she also reflects on how the sport has impacted her life outside of the pool. “Swimming is a place where I have met my best friends in the whole world and people that I could never have met without [it].”

Hermes met her best friend, Grace Bunke, who became a para-swimmer after rotationplasty surgery due to Osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Hermes and Bunke met one day in that familiar place: the pool. But as their friendship grew, so did the Bunke’s cancer. She died the day before her fifteenth birthday.

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

Although Hermes has lost her “soul sister,” she has repurposed swimming as something greater than herself.

“Seeing Grace go through cancer and swimming was huge for me. I believed that if Grace can do it, I can do it. If Grace can go to swim practice and be so sick that the next day she’s in the hospital because [of it], I can go [too]. Swimming turned into something not just for me, but for the both of us.”

While Bunke was alive, Hermes wrote her name on her hand each time she raced. At the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships, Hermes wrote “Grace” on her right hand, visible when she placed her hand over her heart. Hermes also referred to the 100-meter backstroke as her “Grace Race” and gave Bunke the silver medal she had won.

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

Another challenge set in for Hermes after Rio, as she began to lose most of the vision in her left eye. She received a new visual classification, meaning she would swim with blacked-out goggles. This instilled a new level of fear.

“Ever since I can think of, I’ve been afraid of the dark… so that was terrifying for me first adjusting to living in the darkness for two or three hours a day. I had a real legitimate fear that I would take the goggles off and everything would be black still.”

Hermes recalls learning to swim “completely blind” as one of her biggest challenges. She describes this change by saying, “I basically had to learn to swim again.” As time has progressed, so has her comfort level with the adjustment.

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

“I am not afraid of getting in the pool anymore with [the goggles] because I know that if I can survive in the water in the darkness, I can survive on land in the darkness.”

Hermes now has light perception in her left eye, but with her vision slowly decreasing, she will eventually lose her vision completely.  

“It was a big adjustment, but I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me because it’s preparing me for life ahead when I do go blind.”

With the recent loss of both her vision and her best friend, Hermes has found confidence in herself and comfort in her memories and with her new guide dog, Blake.

mcclain-hermes-guide-dog-blake

Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

For eight years, Hermes used a cane, which as she grew, grew with her. But now, Blake has given her a new sense of independence. Unlike with a cane, Hermes is able to give Blake commands to find “inside/outside,” “escalator” and even “Mom/Dad.”

“We can be in the grocery store and I can say ‘Blake, find Mom,’ and Blake will walk down each aisle looking for [her]. I don’t have to wander around the store anymore,” Hermes grins.

Blake has not only helped with Hermes’ navigation but also with her fear of the dark. Hermes awakes in the middle of the night and reaches for her night light. When she cannot find it, she reaches for a brighter light to ensure the blackness can be eliminated with the flip of a switch – that she has not yet completely lost her vision.

“It’s actually been better since getting Blake. I don’t have to do that as often,” explains Hermes. Having a cane was critical to Hermes’ development, but a guide dog is a living, breathing, cuddly companion to whom she can talk: far more than just an inanimate object.

Ironically, Blake loves to fly but hates the water, considering Hermes’ love for it. “He hates the pool and lying down in water. He will avoid a puddle at all costs and will even go around [it], and I’ll have to walk through [it]. If we’re at the pool and somebody splashes, he will run away from them.”

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

Hermes is downstairs for swim practice at 4:30 a.m. She packs her swim bag, fixes herself a light breakfast and coerces Blake, who is clearly not a “morning person,” into the car.

She leaves her house an hour prior to practice for a 40-minute ride. While most swimmers would jump at the chance for a quick nap, she stands outside of the locked doors of the pool facility so she can enter the minute they are opened. When she arrives on deck for practice, before collecting her swim gear, Hermes places a bowl of food on Blake’s special mat on the side of the pool – a place where he lies to watch her swim.

Hermes currently trains with the Cumming (Georgia) Waves Swim Team and will attend and swim for Loyola University in Maryland in the fall. She aspires to accomplish her ultimate dream at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Now, almost three years later, Hermes hopes to expand on her success.

“At four years old, I set the goal of going to the Olympics and winning an Olympic medal, and at 15, I went to the Paralympics. Now at 19 in 2020, I hope to win a Paralympic medal.”

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Photo Courtesy: McClain Hermes

When she achieves her goal in a familiar place – finding comfort in the water – she will experience an all too familiar feeling. Too familiar because this time, the American Flag on her cap will once again remind Hermes of her dream.

~Follow McClain and her guide dog via their Instagram accounts: @mcclainhermes88 and @blaketheguidedog~

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

12 comments

  1. avatar
    john m razi

    So amazing. Beautiful. Beautiful. Fantastic. Heart-soul best. So courageously remarkable. – jmr

  2. avatar
    Lesia Griswold

    Very well written. Makes me realize that all of us can have dreams and they do come true. I love her determination.

  3. avatar
    Lindsey Brown

    As McClain’s high school counselor, I’ve been inspired by her grace and determination. I’m so very proud of her and I’m looking forward to following all her future achievements. Go McClain!!!!!

  4. avatar
    Dad

    Great article Molly…………glad to see that your educational investment (not to mention your hard work), is paying off. Can’t wait to see your next one. Have fun with this throughout the summer.

    • avatar
      Dad

      Yes, ditto on McClain, she is very determined with a good sense of humor. Both will serve her well throughout life.

  5. avatar
    Linda Griswold

    So proud of you, McClain! In the face of adversity, you have chosen to fight, not retreat. Love your sense of humor, work ethic and drive, and hope to see you on the podium in Tokyo!

  6. avatar
    Susan Whitfield

    The strength and determination of this young lady is truly an amazing story.

  7. avatar
    Rita Shea

    What an inspiration and hope to be cheering McClean on in 2020 in Tokyo! Great article Molly, can’t wait to read more.

  8. avatar
    Anna Lettenberger

    Very well done Molly!! You captured McClain’s spirit perfectly!

  9. avatar

    McClain, I love YOU! I am inspired by YOU!

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      I love you ❤️ I m proud of you and inspired by you and hard working next year in Tokyo ❤️ 🏊🏼‍♀️🥇🇺🇸💕

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