Pure Grit Leads Paralympian to Beijing Competition

Post a Comment » Written on August 7th, 2008     
Filed under: News
GRAND RAPIDS, MI (August 7, 2008) – Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Stone, who was adopted from a Romanian orphanage when she was just four years old, is preparing to leave later this month for the 2009 Beijing Paralympic Games.

Elizabeth and her mother, Linda, attend First Covenant Church in Grand Rapids.

This will be the second Paralympics competition for Elizabeth, whose left leg was amputated above the knee. She competed at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, where she finished fifth in the women’s 100-meter backstroke, setting an American record and breaking the old standard by almost three seconds.

StoneElizabeth figures her best shot to medal in Beijing is the 100-meter backstroke. She also will compete in the 50-meter, 100-meter, 400-meter freestyle, and 100-meter fly.

Elizabeth already has traveled throughout the world building an impressive resume:

  • 2008: First place, 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, 100-meter backstroke (American record); second place, 400-meter freestyle, 50-meter freestyle – U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • 2007: Second place, 50-meter backstroke, 100-meter backstroke; third place, 400-meter freestyle – U.S. Paralympics Open Swimming Championships in College Park, Maryland.
  • 2006: Gold medal, 4×100-meter medley relay; bronze medal, 100-meter backstroke – International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Swimming World Championships in Durban, South Africa.
  • 2006: Three American records, 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter backstroke, 400-meter freestyle – U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in San Antonio, Texas.
  • 2005: Two American records, 50-meter backstroke, 200-meter backstroke – U.S. Paralympics Open Swimming Championships in Minneapolis.
  • 2004: First place, 800-meter freestyle, 1500-meter freestyle; second place, 100-meter back; third place, 100-meter butterfly – U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis.

She participated in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon on a team with other female Paralympians, which required her to swim 1.5 miles from the former prison across the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay to the city. Closer to home, Elizabeth also has competed on her high school swim team and was named to the All-Conference Team in 2006.

Elizabeth’s journey began when her mother adopted her from an orphanage located in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.  Linda had seen a report on ABC News 20/20 on babies in the dehumanizing conditions that were typical of the country’s orphanages at the time. She knew she had to help someone in a similar situation.

Elizabeth’s parents had given her up to the orphanage because of her medical condition, known as PFFD-Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency. She was born with a shortened right femur bone.

The girl’s parents and other adults at the orphanage initially thought Elizabeth also was mentally disabled. The girl was kept in her crib for the first 18 months of her life and had little contact with other people.

Linda, a physical therapist for a local school district, was not deterred by Elizabeth’s disability. Rather, she was taken by what she saw of the girl’s spirit in a photograph. Working through an agency, Linda adopted Elizabeth without ever having met her.

Elizabeth later underwent four surgeries to attempt to correct the condition, but doctors ultimately were forced to amputate her foot, which has enabled her to get a prosthesis. Recovery was slow. “She was in a cast from chest to toes for several months,” Linda says.

The cost of adoption was more than Linda, who was single, could afford, but she says the church has helped financially and emotionally throughout the years. “I knew my church would be supportive,” she says.

Soon after Elizabeth arrived in the United States, her mother enrolled her in swimming lessons so the girl could develop upper body strength. When she was nine, Elizabeth joined a local swimming team.

“She had begged me to let her be on the team,” Linda recalls. The strain of practice changed Elizabeth’s mind. “She wanted to quit the first day,” Linda recalls, laughing.

The two struck a deal. Elizabeth would have to race in at least one meet and then they would discuss their options. In her first race, Elizabeth took more than two minutes to complete a 50-meter freestyle and came in last, long after the other swimmers had finished. In the subsequent competition, however, she finished in front of one person. “Did you see that!” she exclaimed to her mom. “I beat somebody!”

Elizabeth was hooked, and she has been finishing in front of a lot of people ever since.
“The spirit that Linda saw in the photograph has driven her daughter. Elizabeth, who also plays on two wheelchair basketball team, practices two to four hours a day, six to seven days a week. “I like it,” she says.

Elizabeth says competing in Athens has helped prepared her for Beijing. “It was bigger than I thought it would be,” she recalls. “It was a good eye-opening experience.” It showed her how strong international competition is and what is necessary to excel.

The pair leaves for Beijing on August 20, and Elizabeth will compete September 2-4. Both are hoping to see part of the country, which doesn’t always happen in international competitions. Oftentimes, the athletes arrive for the event and leave without seeing anything but the venue.

The pair has other dreams for traveling, as well. “We both would love to go on a vacation and not see the pool,” Linda says, laughing.

To view a video report on Elizabeth, see Paralympian.

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