Motivational swimmer: Paralympian offers Dragons early inspiration

Martha Ruether is an inspirational person.

But she doesn’t come off that way.

When asked to speak to the Warren Area High School swim team recently, this Paralympian started with the fact she’s a college swimmer. Not with the fact she’s a Paralympian.

“They asked a lot about college swimming,” said Ruether. “So, initially, I talked about that … so they could relate.

“Then, I said, I also swim Paralympics.”

Warren swim coach Jeff Walters wondered if what Ruether has had to overcome to become a swimmer would even come up.

Ruether was born 16 weeks premature and, because of that, her retinas aren’t completely attached. She’s legally blind, and can’t see anything out of her left eye.

“Yes, I notice there’s a difference between me and other people,” said Ruether. “I don’t have the depth perception… I’ve hit my head on the wall… I’ve hit my heels (on flip-turns)… I have no sight in my left eye. When we do races we have the faster person on my right, so I can see them on my way up (the first length).”

All that said, Ruether set records in high school for Allegany-Limestone (2011 graduate) in her hometown of Allegany, N.Y., swims for Lake Erie College’s women’s swim team, and is on the United States Paralympic swim team, ranked among the best in the world.

Competing in the IPC Swimming World Paralympics, Ruether placed seventh in the 100-meter freestyle, seventh in the 100 backstroke, seventh in the 100 breaststroke and fifth in the 50 free.

At the Speedo CAN-AM meet in Edmonton, Alberta, she won two gold medals, setting personal bests in the 50 and 100 freestyle events. Her clocking of 25.6 seconds in the 50 free ranks her fourth in the world, while her 100 free effort of 1:05.3 is third.

She wants to, eventually, go to the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Brazil.

Yet, Ruether claims she had never been asked to be a motivational speaker.

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” said Ruether, who brought those two gold medals to the Warren County YMCA pool one morning, getting driven from home at 5 a.m. “I thought it was extremely cool. I’d never spoken to a group (that large – 50 strong) that were requesting me, specifically… I’d never even been to Warren, Pa.”

Scott Sando, father of former Warren swimmer Eifa Sando who knows Martha’s father, made the connection.

“I was very flattered they asked me,” said Ruether, a sophomore in college, same as Eifa Sando. “I think it’s fantastic if I can tell something about what I’ve been through and can possibly help someone get through something (themselves).”

Her stories and inspiration go beyond herself.

“I know a lot of people who swim who don’t have legs and don’t have arms and they swim faster than I do. I think it’s extremely inspiring to talk to those people,” said Ruether, who is proud to educate swimmers on the Paralympics and the numerous levels of disability for every event.

Ruether was moved that someone would think she is inspiring.

“It’s surreal in a way,” she said. “‘Wow, you want me to talk to you?’

“Yeah, I was nervous,” she said, “especially because there was a lot of (Warren Dragons), and I was standing very close to them. I was nervous in the beginning.”

It’s just been a normal thing for Ruether to overcome adversity, but not so normal to talk about it.

She said she was in sixth- or seventh-grade when she attended a swim camp for the visually impaired, and a swim coach approached her.

“I just swam at the camp, and they said, ‘you’re good,'” she said. “I’m just a person that, yes, was dealt this hand, and all the stuff that’s happened in my life, it can only fuel me,” she said. “I think it’s really cool I have the ability to impact someone’s life by telling them about me.”

“(Head coach) Jeff (Walters) and the other coaches do a great job of getting speakers to come in and talk to the team throughout the season,” said Warren senior Bennett Steber, also a high school record-holder. “It’s great that we get to see success take so many different forms, and I think it always has a positive impact on the team. More often than not, our coaches and the speakers are teaching us to use our minds to help us rather than hold us back. As with most athletes, a key aspect to a great swimmer is mental. Martha beat the odds and became a great swimmer by teaching herself to never give in no matter how tough the work was, to never lose sight of her goals, and to never let her ‘disadvantage’ keep her from reaching the top. It is a great lesson that the coaches at WAHS have been teaching us from the beginning. I was glad to see Martha Ruether there, bright and early with us, to put that long standing lesson into perspective.”