By MICHAEL WHITNEY
Published March 29, 2023
Looking to reach the Paralympics
Doug Ramsay photo
James Hessen, 33 of Marysville, prepares to dive into the pool during an early morning session at the Everett YMCA last week.
When he puts on his goggles, the world slows down.
Cleaving through the water, the pain goes away.
A mishap upended his life, but he’s getting it back.
James Hessen knows what he needs to do.
Now, next month the fast swimmer from Marysville will be flying to Minneapolis to compete in a qualifier for the World Para Series. His eye on the prize is making it to the Paralympics in Paris in 2024.
Hessen’s always been around water. He was on Cascade High’s swim team and worked as a lifeguard. He went on to Central Washington University and was in the Coast Guard Reserves for six years before enlisting full-time.
The sea change to Hessen’s life happened on the Great Lakes. Lake Superior, if you’re curious. It was with the local fire department on an ice rescue training exercise in freezing rain and sleet. The group was working on the ice and Hessen fell through, hitting a more solid sheet of ice one foot below. He heard a pop. It hurt. He thought it was a twisted ankle. "Alright, I'm sore," was his takeaway. Little did he know.
The right foot later got swollen. It was a remote community, and doctors at the local hospital reckoned it's a sprained ankle.
Four months later, a specialist identified what he really had: A ruptured posterior tibial tendon. This is serious stuff. The tendon was completely separated away from the foot bones. It required two plates and a screw. However, it didn't heal. The bones weren't fusing back together and were soft. The leg bones above were solid, but the foot wasn’t.
Amputation was March 7, 2022.
In the span of a year, he’s come a long way, baby.
Doctors asked him ‘can you swim?’ Of course he can. A doctor recommended in April 2022 using swimming for helping strengthen the body and dull a bothersome tingling sensation in the limb.
"They weren't kidding it felt good," Hessen said.
The family is rooted in Washington state, so after being medically discharged from the Coast Guard, they came back here.
Hessen and his wife are active people, going on walks and hikes. He began swimming to get back to what he and his wife like to do.
But his daughter Maeve drives him equally to thrive.
"My daughter was learning how to walk while I was re-learning how to walk," Hessen said.
Swimming isn't just for health. It's to abate the pain. If he goes a day or two without, that tingling returns.
So he’s out the door by a quarter to five, and pulling into the Everett Y by 5:10 a.m. to start his day.
The Master’s swim class joins him in the pool at 6 a.m.
The class has some of the strongest swimmers in the Y.
Tough regiments. Faces get beat red by each session's end. It's mutual suffering, Hessen described it.
How did pursuing the Paralympics happen, though?
Credit Debbie, a previous Master's class coach, who encouraged Hessen to try out at swim meets.
In set tests, "I was hitting times and she looked at me and said, 'you know you're fast enough' (to compete), and I looked it up and said 'oh my gosh I am'."
He got classified as a Para competitor last summer.
In Minnesota, he’ll be competing in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, 200-meter Individual Medley and the 100-meter breaststroke.
Fifty meters is the length of Olympic-size pools.
He’s metaphorically a little guy in a big pond. Others have teams and sponsors backing them, he said. He's just got his goggles and swimsuit, which he bought for $40 on sale.
Swimming lets him "tune out most of the noise" of life and reflect on his technique.
A self-intuition, a sixth sense, comes to him. It's being attuned to his body.
"You can start to feel all those aspects of that stroke," Hessen said.
He doesn't have that right ankle and foot, so he thinks on how he's kicking and how he's positioned while carving through the water.
You train to hold deep breaths, Hessen said. Coming up for fewer breaths saves time while on the clock.
Coach Debbie and now Coach Lucy drilled these techniques.
"I'm working harder than I ever did in my high school days," Hessen said.
If you want to support Hessen’s trip to Minneapolis, see https://gofund.me/b9570f89
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