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A Golden Opportunity

Mikaela Jenkins’ hands made contact with the wall of the pool during the 100-meter butterfly S10 race on Aug. 31, 2021 at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. The Evansville native came up for air next to her opponent, Australian Jasmine Greenwood, and squinted at the tiny scoreboard across the room.

“I did it?” she said, pointing and removing her goggles. “It says one, right?”

A simple “yes” from Greenwood was all it took. Jenkins fell back into the water, an audible sigh of relief bursting from her chest. She had won her first gold medal as a Team USA swimmer.

Throughout the games from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, 2021, the 18-year-old graduate of a homeschool partnership with F.J. Reitz High School swam in five individual races and relays, winning her second gold medal in the women’s 4-by-100-meter medley relay on Sept. 2.

“It's just pure relief,” she says. “I was very happy that I walked away with two gold medals. That was everything that I could possibly want.”

Paralympics classifications are broken down by sport and then events in order to group athletes based on their impairments. In swimming, S1 to S10 designate physical impairments, with S1 being the most impaired. As an amputee born with Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency (which led doctors to amputate her left foot up to the knee), Jenkins swims in the S10 category.

Athletes can also classify as S11-S13 for vision impairments and S14 for intellectual impairments.

After training non-stop for more than a year and quarantining several weeks before traveling to Tokyo, the 2020 Games were a much-needed adventure for Jenkins. But she says one of her highlights happened in the call room before her butterfly race.

As she mentally and physically prepared, one of Jenkins’ idols, 11-time gold medalist from New Zealand, Sophie Pascoe, entered the room and winked at her.

“I’ve grown up seeing her be the absolute GOAT of paraswimming in the S10s (Pascoe recently moved to the S9 group),” says Jenkins. “At that moment I was like okay, I got this. Sophie believes in me, I got it.”

After her win, Jenkins says the two embraced and exchanged congratulations in the call room.

With her Paralympics debut under her belt, Jenkins is already looking forward to the future of her swimming career — one she says she hopes won’t include any more repetitive Olympic Village meals.

“The food was great, but if I see one more piece of dry chicken breast, rice, and teriyaki sauce, I think I’m going to throw something,” she says. “I had that like every day for four weeks. I’m taking a break.”

Jenkins plans to try out for the 2024 Paris Paralympics and 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics and will swim for her college team at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, starting later this month after a well-deserved break.

As she settles into her freshman year at school, catching up on emails and getting to snack on a late-night pizza, Jenkins carries her unforgettable experiences in Tokyo with her.

“It really didn’t hit me until the last day because easily it’s the most stressed out and most tired physically and mentally I’ve ever been,” she says. “I started to tear up a little bit — we had one last medalist the last night. Our national anthem was playing, you were watching the flag go up, and I didn’t cry during my podiums or my races … I just started to tear up at the end. I was like, I’m done. I did my job. I did well.”

Jenkins, and the Tri-State’s two other Olympians, Lilly King and Jackie Young, will be featured in the September/October issue of Evansville Living, on newsstands later this month.

Photos provided by the Jenkins family.

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