Yale Junior Wins Bronze Medal in Paralympics

Yale junior Deborah Gruen did not expect to win the Bronze Medal at the Paralympic Games in Beijing this month, so when she was presented that honor on Sept. 12, she had this to say: "I'm thrilled. I'm excited. I'm exuberant. I'm any adjective you can think of to describe being on top of the world."

Yale junior Deborah Gruen did not expect to win the Bronze Medal at the Paralympic Games in Beijing this month, so when she was presented that honor on Sept. 12, she had this to say: “I’m thrilled. I’m excited. I’m exuberant. I’m any adjective you can think of to describe being on top of the world.”

Gruen won the medal in the women’s 100-meter (m) Breaststroke. She set an American record with her time: She finished the race in 1:44, just 2.13 seconds behind the world record holder, Elizabeth Johnson of Great Britain, and only 1.61 seconds behind the Paralympic record holder, Sarah Bowen of Australia.

    Slideshow and Video

This slideshow and video were created using materials taken at the event by Deborah Gruen’s father, Dr. Jeffrey Gruen of the Yale School of Medicine.

View Video: Deborah Gruen

View Slide Show: “Paralympian Deborah Gruen” (requires Flash Player)


The Yale student, who was born with spina bifida, has competed at the national level since 1999. She also won a Bronze Medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, when she was 16. She set two world records (in the 200m breaststroke and the 1500m freestyle) at the 2006 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships. She is a member of the Yale swim team and the Hamden North Haven Swim Club (HNHS), and has also participated in the Omni Swim Club in New Haven.

Gruen hails from Hamden, Connecticut. Her father, Dr. Jeffrey Gruen, is a neonatologist and professor of pediatrics, genetics and investigative medicine at the Yale School of Medicine.

At Yale, Gruen is majoring in economics and mathematics. She is studying this semester at Peking University (PKU) in Beijing as part of the Yale-PKU Joint Program. She took time out from her studies in Beijing to answer some questions for the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about her life as a champion swimmer. An edited version of that conversation follows.

How did you become interested in swimming?

I enjoyed swimming for fun at my pool club during the summers and never felt limited in the water. The pool was one of the only places where I could keep up with other kids. Once my sister [Michele, now a graduate student and master’s team swimmer at Boston University] started swimming competitively year round, I copied her after realizing it was a sport I could do, too.

How old were you when you started?

I was around six. I first started swimming competitively at my local swim club in a summer league. Then, when I was about seven, I joined HNHS, which competes year round. I absolutely loved the team and my coaches. The coaches treated me like everyone else and I made friends instantly with the other swimmers. While I was slower than the other kids in meets, I could keep up with them in practice, so I never felt like my disability separated me in any way.

As a youngster, you mostly competed against able-bodied swimmers. When did you first compete against other swimmers with disabilities?

My first meet for swimmers with disabilities was the Paralympic Trials for the 2000 Paralympic Games, which were held in Sydney, Australia. At this meet, I was 12 years old and failed to qualify for the Paralympic Team. However, it was the first meet where I not only saw how fast swimmers with other disabilities are, but how much potential I had.

Two years later, I qualified for the 2002 International Paralympics Committee World Championships in Mar Del Plata, Argentina. This meet was my first exposure to international competition.

What was that experience like for you?

I was shocked by how fast the other swimmers were and realized how much work I would need to do if I wanted to earn a medal or even just qualify for the 2004 Paralympics. The transition for any athlete from the national to international stage is utterly mind-blowing. I still remember the feeling of shock when, after swimming all best times and entering the meet with the expectation of earning a medal, I was fourth in my best event and wasn’t even close to winning a bronze!

I returned from this meet with a newfound intensity in the water.

What was it like for you to win your first Bronze Medal in 2004?

Winning the first medal in 2004 was exciting, but the second one in Beijing was unbelievable. In 2004, I was 16 years old, a junior in high school. I had been training with the same team my entire life, and couldn’t appreciate exactly what the medal — or even what the Paralympic Games — meant. I hadn’t faced any major challenges in swimming up to that point, so I couldn’t appreciate all of the hard work that I had done to get to such a high-level meet. Also I entered the meet as a comfortable third-place seed and while I was definitely excited to win the Bronze Medal in the 100m Breaststroke, I wouldn’t say that I was shocked to medal or that I was even content with my time.

So your win in Beijing is more thrilling?

Yes. Beijing was meaningful because I realized what I had to overcome in order to swim my best again.

For example, I had to make a huge transition when I came to Yale. In college, daily life is more chaotic and you have to figure out a brand new campus and classes. The shift impacted my swimming tremendously, particularly when I was a freshman, because I was so tired all the time from just getting around the campus that I didn’t have any energy left to swim.

Also, the swimmers on the Yale team were bigger, faster and more competitive than those with whom I had trained in high school. I had to fight to gain the coaches’ attention and to do what was best for my own swimming, even if it meant doing something different from my teammates. College swimming taught me to be more independent as a swimmer and made me realize how much I love the sport.

In Beijing, I was not at all expecting to medal, since I entered the meet in the fourth-place seed. When I finished the race and looked up at the final results, I remember being completely shocked and then recall looking over into the stands to see my sister jumping up and down. I don’t think that I stopped smiling that entire night.

Were you at all nervous beforehand?

Yes! I was particularly nervous for the Games because I knew how fast they were going to be. Many people were swimming best times — by a lot — and I didn’t want to get all the way to China only to have a poor meet. I knew that I had trained rigorously for the past four years and had prepared to the best of my ability. Except the Paralympics are more than just a swim meet: They are really an entire experience lasting for about a month, so you can never be sure exactly what will happen.

What is your training regimen like?

I typically train eight times per week — six afternoons for two hours and two morning practices for an hour and a half. I also lift weights twice a week.

What was your impression of the Beijing Paralympics?

The Beijing Paralympics were spectacular! Every venue was enormous, the village was clean, the volunteers were helpful and the Water Cube [the site for swimming competitions] was definitely the most amazing pool in which I have ever swum. I feel honored to have even been inside the Water Cube!

It was awesome to walk outside after finals and watch the light show on the outside of the Cube and to see the “Bird’s Nest” [the national stadium] light up. The amount of time and money that China invested in both the Olympics and Paralympics was apparent in how efficiently both Games ran.

Did you have any opportunities for sight­seeing in China?

No. On the last day before Closing Ceremonies, I was able to go to the Pearl Market with my parents in the morning. Before the meet we would stay back in the village to rest up and practice. During the competition we were busy racing or training for another event. That is part of the reason why I chose to stay in Beijing for the whole semester. I really wanted to see China and to learn about the culture here. You can’t spend your time sightseeing when you’re busy preparing for the biggest competition of your life.

What else attracted you to the Yale-PKU program?

I also wanted to learn to speak the Chinese language. Now I’m taking Chinese and can practice it in the dining hall, with my roommates and around the PKU campus. It’s a hard language but I’m glad that I’m learning it in China, where I’m surrounded by it and have to use it to communicate.

What are your next goals?

I want to finish up my junior and senior years on the Yale swim team. The camaraderie makes being a part of the team special and I can’t imagine never swimming again.

Before I graduate Yale, I hope to work on improving the classification system in Paralympic swimming to make it more fair. Currently, swimmers are assigned to a specific classification depending on their level of disability. Except no two disabilities are exactly alike. The result is that within one particular classification, there is a whole range of disabilities and capabilities; some have more function than others, and some have more drag than others. While there is no perfect solution to designing a system that will allow swimmers with a range of disabilities to compete, improvement may be possible through the application of statistics. My studies at Yale could potentially help me create a more level playing field in the pool.

Will you be able to keep up with your swim­ming in China?

No, I’m taking a break from swimming until December. I would have taken a break this semester anyway upon returning from the Games to focus on school. I’ve had a long season and a break will revive my desire to compete.

The support of my teammates at Yale, HNHS and Omni make practice enjoyable and are a large part of the reason why I love swimming as much as I do. They never made me feel badly for being slower, and it was wonderful to hear from so many of them at the Games! I miss them all so much this semester in Beijing!

By Susan Gonzalez

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