CHICAGO (CBS) — After Ahalya Lettenberger was born with a rare muscular skeletal condition, doctors told her family that she would never walk. At the age of 3, Ahalya proved them wrong. Now 15 years later, the Glen Ellyn native is making even greater strides in the pool. She’s on her way to the World Championships as the youngest athlete on the Paralympics Swimming National A Team.
“As soon as I jumped in the water and swam, I just knew I belonged. I just felt free,” says Ahalya.
Ahalya was born with Arthrogyposis Amyoplasia, a muscular-skeletal disorder that means that she has tissue instead of muscle in her lower limbs, affecting her joints, causing limited movement and muscle weakness, and causing her hips to be dislocated.
“From a baby, she’s always been motivated and driven. We are a pretty competitive family, especially my husband (Tom),” says Anna Lettenberger, Ahalya’s mom.
Ahalya trains twice a day, six days a week with all able-bodied swimmers on the B.R. Ryall YMCA Swim Team.
“She doesn’t use her legs when she swims, so it’s all her upper body,” says Anna.
“We spend a lot of time in swimming working the whole body. There’s a lot of balance and technique work, and a lot of that doesn’t apply in the same way. So it was just a matter of finding ways to work within the program we have but find ways and things to put in for Ahalya that are appropriate for her body type and the way she trains,” says Jonathan Addison, director of Competitive Aquatics and head coach for the B.R. Ryall YMCA Swim Team.
“My best two events are the 200 IM, which is all four strokes, and the 400 meter freestyle, which is more of a distance event,” says Ahalya.
While the recent Glenbard West grad remains focused on the World Championships in London in September, her real goal is qualifying for the Toyko 2020 Paralympic games.
“She said, ‘For the first time in my life I felt like I truly belong. I never realized that I felt like I didn’t, but for the first time people were not staring at me because I’m different. People are staring at me because I’m good,’” says Anna.
“I really want to the world to see the ability in disability,” says Ahalya.
Ahalya is joining the swim team at Rice University this fall. She’ll be studying biomedical engineering, so she can help develop technology for others facing similar challenges so they can gain their own independence.