Paralympians flock to Loyola University Maryland for training, support

By Cameron Rogers

Special to the Review
 
One of the proudest moments of Brian Loeffler’s 26-years as a swim coach at Loyola University Maryland came when he helped Brad Snyder, a blinded military veteran, atop the podium during a medal ceremony at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

“I got to position him on the medal stand, then step off to the side and watch the flag be raised and the national anthem be played,” Loeffler said. “It really felt like I was a part of that ceremony, being so close. It was pretty powerful.”

Snyder is among five swimmers with disabilities who train under Loeffler at the Catholic university in Baltimore who earned the right to represent the United States at the Paralympics, which will be held Sept. 7-18 in Rio de Janeiro, in the same venues used during the recent Summer Olympics.

Team USA Paralympians Brad Snyder and his guide dog Gizzy, Elizabeth Smith, McKenzie Coan, Cortney Jordan and Alyssa Gialamas, complete their morning workout at the Loyola University Maryland fitness and aquatic center Aug. 10. The five swimmers will compete in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, beginning Sept. 7 (Kevin J. Parks | CR Staff)
For Snyder, who grew up in Reno, Nev. and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, it will be an opportunity to add to his international honors, which include two gold medals and a silver four years ago. For others, it will be their first opportunity to compete on a global scale.

McKenzie Coan, a junior at Loyola from Clarksville, Ga., started swimming at age 5, as aquatic therapy for her osteogenesis, also known as brittle bone disease. She earned a berth at the 2012 London Paralympics, where she heard of Loyola’s aquatics program from another Paralympian.

She committed to the school after touring the campus and talking to Loeffler.

“People are friendly, everything is state-of-the-art,” Coan said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to say Brian (Loeffler) is the best Paralympic coach in the world.”

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Alyssa Gialamas, a junior from Naperville, Ill., studying communications who has anthrogryposis, congenital joint contractures, was also drawn to the program by Loeffler’s track record.
“I love Loyola,” she said. “I can’t say anything bad about it. I love my professors, I love what I’m studying.”
Snyder lost his sight in combat in Afghanistan while serving in the Navy in 2011. One year to the day after being blinded, he won gold medals in the 100- and 400-meter freestyles at the London Paralympics.
“To participate in an event that is as immense and impressive as the Paralympics Games, it was hard for me to take everything in for what it was,” he said. “It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.”
Elizabeth Smith, originally from Muncie, Ind., is one of his training partners. Born without most of her left arm, she holds American records for her competitive classification in the 50, 100, and 200 butterflys.
Cortney Jordan, a Loyola graduate student from Henderson, Nev., with cerebral palsy, has been on the National Paralympic team for 10 years.

Coach Brian Loeffler helps Cortney Jordan onto the starting block during an Aug. 10 practice at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. Jordan is a Loyola graduate student and a member of the National Paralympic team. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“My main goal,” she said, “is just to be satisfied with my swims, to leave knowing that I gave it everything that I had, and to be content with where I end.”
Although Paralympic practices are adjusted to each athlete’s disability, there are few visible differences between them and a standard college swimming practice. In the water, the Paralympians swim as gracefully as any other athlete.
In the addition to the Patriot League, which includes the likes of the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point, Loyola competes in the East Coast Athletic Conference, a consortium of 300 colleges that will include Paralympic events within two to five years.

Brad Snyder, a blinded Navy veteran, prepares for a recent practice session at Loyola University Maryland. Snyder, a former gold medalist in the 2012 Paralympic London Games, will compete on Team USA’s Paralympic squad. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Loeffler, who has coached Paralympian swimmers since 2007, hopes that will create momentum for a national intercollegiate championship meet, which would provide additional opportunities for Coan and Gialamas during the Greyhounds’ season.
“I think that it’s a long-range goal,” Loeffler said, “but I see it continuing to expand more and more. High school-age kids are looking at Loyola as an option for them to swim on a Division I team, get a great education and pursue their Paralympic dreams.”

Also see:

Olympics close with three in Baltimore archdiocese making history 

Archbishop Lori commemorates St. Teresa’s canonization with Mass at Baltimore Basilica

Blind Mount Carmel student overcomes big challenges

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.