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Swimming catapults Hannah Nelson, Brett Evans from cancer survivors to Paralympic hopefuls

Eighteen-year-olds Nelson and Evans became cancer survivors before they were old enough to drive, forced to understand harsh realities before most are able to comprehend such complicated matters. When they needed a push back into the world, swimming was the answer for both. And eventually it brought the couple together.

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Yankton's Hannah Nelson performs the breaststroke during the 400-yard individual medley at the Dakota Riptide Invitational on Saturday at Mitchell Aquatic Center. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

Hannah Nelson and Brett Evans can feel the stares any time they walk into a room.

Those stares will never go away, but they have learned that the lines on the bottom of a swimming pool hold no judgment. More importantly, swimming has helped them realize the stares from a passerby are irrelevant — that they are no different than anyone else.

Eighteen-year-olds Nelson and Evans became cancer survivors before they were old enough to drive, forced to understand harsh realities before most are able to comprehend such complicated matters. When they needed a push back into the world, swimming was the answer for both. And eventually it brought the couple together.

Nelson, a Yankton native, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in her leg at 11 years old. She underwent chemotherapy for nine months and eventually had her left leg amputated below the knee.

Evans, who is from Columbia, Kentucky, was 13 when the pain in his knee was unbearable. Like Nelson, doctors long thought it was growing pains. MRIs showed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his right knee. As a result any hopes of being physically active in the future required doctors to amputate and attach his foot to his thigh backwards.

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Both avid athletes prior to cancer, were immediately accepted by friends once again, but the athletic component in their lives was still missing. Nelson and Evans were reluctantly pushed into swimming.

On Saturday, Nelson and Evans competed for the Yankton Swim Team in the Dakota Riptide Invite with future aspirations of participating in the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan.

“I got in the pool for just a moment and I was like, ‘I can still do this,’” Nelson recalled. “Since then, it has lit a fire in me. I can get faster, I can get stronger and I don’t need two legs. It was almost like having two legs was holding me back.”

While Evans vividly remembers the date of his diagnosis, most details before diagnosis are murky for Nelson, but the Yankton graduate was physically active like most students. She was a swimmer and an avid dancer. Nelson enjoyed it so much that she was considering moving away from swimming to lend more focus to dancing.

But when the pains in her leg, which was initially felt in her Achilles tendon and then her shin, became too much, dancing was longer viable. But during the diagnosis and recovery process, doctors gave Nelson information in increments, given the levity of the situation.

“I didn’t look anything up and I was only 11, but I had this feeling something was going to happen to my leg,” Nelson said. “I didn’t know how this was going to go away. It was strange that I knew already.”

Nelson missed all of sixth grade and days after she returned to Sacred Heart Elementary School, snapped her amputated leg during recess, resulting in another surgery to put plates in her thigh.

Although classmates accepted Nelson upon return, she harbored insecurities. She had a cosmetic cover on her prosthetic leg and rarely wore shorts in hopes of hiding her disability. Eventually she got a black cover on her leg and began to realize there was nothing to hide.

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“If people are staring, they’re probably curious and it’s not always a bad thing,” Nelson said. “There’s nothing to hide. Just embrace it, because I was almost holding myself back.”

Evans played football and baseball growing up and after six months of learning to walk on his prosthetic leg, he was once again looking for a sport. Although his friends and mother were initially concerned he may get injured after surgery, Evans was encouraged to return to sports.

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Brett Evans climbs out of the pool following the 200-yard backstroke at the Dakota Riptide Invitational Saturday at Mitchell Aquatic Center. Evans is from Columbia, Kentucky, but has been training with girlfriend Hannah Nelson in Yankton. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

He tried soccer and basketball, but couldn’t run. All of his friends continued to play and Evans felt he was holding them back, so he became reclusive. With no disabled sports available nearby, his mother suggested swimming a little more than two years ago and it became a natural fit

During the first swim practice, Evans’ new coach gave him a jump rope. Evans balked at the idea, but was convinced it could happen within five weeks. Sure enough, he was jump-roping one-legged five weeks later.

“Your disability doesn’t limit you; your mind limits you,” Evans said. “You play with the hand you’re dealt in life. If you’re dealt a bad hand, you work with what you’ve got. You still live life to the fullest.”

Settling on a sport

Evans searched for a sport that fit, while Nelson initially had little interest in returning to the pool. But a friend on the Yankton swim team encouraged her to come to a meet.

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She hopped into the pool at the end of the meet and never got out. Eventually, Nelson went to a camp hosted by 23-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long, who encouraged her to attend a Para swim meet. It was the first time Nelson interacted with people with similar disabilities. Nelson and Evans met at a meet in California and have been dating for nearly 18 months.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” said Nelson, who graduated from Yankton High School in December. “ I just thought they’re not letting anything stop them, so I can do that, too.”

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Yankton's Hannah Nelson performs the backstroke during the 400-yard individual medley at the Dakota Riptide Invitational Saturday at Mitchell Aquatic Center. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

In November 2019, Nelson broke two S10 — swimming classifications based on disability — records in the 400-yard individual medley and 100-yard individual medley during a meet at Mitchell Activity Center and has since rebroken both records, swimming 5 minutes, 10.75 seconds in the 400 IM and 1 minute, 8.93 seconds in the 100 IM.

Evans, meanwhile, is eyeing records in the 50 freestyle, 50 butterfly, 50 backstroke and the 100 IM in the S9 classification. When COVID-19 postponed the Tokyo games, they both went nearly nine months without racing. For Evans, racing was further complicated by COVID-19 restrictions in Kentucky, so he had periodically traveled to Yankton to train and visit Nelson.

The Paralympics, which run after the Olympics, are tentatively set for Aug. 24-July 5, but are still in question due to COVID-19 concerns. Paralympic trials are slated for July 17-20 in Minneapolis, but qualifications are still undetermined.

Typically, a swimmer must have an active World Para Swimming license, have achieved qualifying time at a WPS event and be physically classified to qualify for the trials. But since the pandemic has wiped out the majority of events this year, the United State Paralympics Swimming may change the standards for the 34 male and 28 female slots available.

Nelson and Evans are both hoping to qualify for Tokyo, but hope their lives will continue to progress regardless of what happens. Nelson is weighing options for college, while Evans is considering moving to Yankton full time to train and attend college.

“When I started training, I had trouble with everything,” Evans said. “But I kept doing it, and now I can exceed some of my friends. I can play basketball now, I can football. I’m more active in general. I never thought I’d be where I am now.”

Related Topics: SWIMMING AND DIVING
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