McClain Hermes is a twenty-year-old college student and Paralympic medalist in the 400 meter freestyle, the 100 meter backstroke, and the 100 meter breaststroke. When McClain was eight years old, she had four emergency eye surgeries due to retina detachments, the result of Wagner Syndrome. She is now completely blind in the right eye and describes the vision in her left eye as, “seeing through a straw with wax paper over it.” Her vision loss is progressive. McClain competed for the U.S. at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games and holds 10 short course American records in the S12 classification, which is the class of athletes that have the highest visual acuity than athletes who are also blind and competing.
When McClain is not in the pool, you can find her on the Loyola University campus, at cross-training, or tandem bike riding with family and friends. She also enjoys traveling, reading, and writing, which led to McClain’s internship as a journalist with Swimming Word Magazine. Additionally, McClain and her father began Shoes for the Souls as a small service project in 2009. Since then Shoes for Souls has collected and donated over 15,000 pairs of shoes to the Atlanta Mission, which serves homeless men, women and children.
In the written interview below, Different & Able and McClain delve into a question and answer session about Wagner Syndrome, adaptive swimming techniques, life in college with her a new sense of independence, her seeing-eye dog, Blake, and her journey to greatness in the Paralympic games.
- D&A: When did you begin swimming?
MH: I began competitively swimming when I was four on our neighborhood summer league team. When I was seven, I began swimming at a year-round facility, but I did not get involved in Paralympic swimming until I was eleven.
- D&A: If you are comfortable, can you tell us a little about the experience of losing your eyesight as a child?
MH: When I was eight, I had several emergency eye surgeries to try to save my eyesight because both of my retinas were detaching. I ultimately lost all sight in my right eye, and I have progressively lost the sight in my left eye as well. I feel I was lucky to have several years of modest eyesight; I was able to create visual memories and learn what the world looked like. So, I could keep those memories with me for a lifetime. I also believe my young age was advantageous in adapting to the loss of my eyesight because I was able to grow up learning and adapting. It was not a big shock to my system, as it could have been if I were older. I do have some beautiful memories before totally losing my eyesight and one of them is being able to pet a beluga whale at SeaWorld. This memory along with numerous others is stored in my mind forever.
- D&A: Can you tell us a bit about Wagner Syndrome and how you were diagnosed?
MH: Wagner’s Syndrome is a rare eye condition that causes retinal detachments and progressive vision loss in children. It took almost six years for me to be diagnosed with Wagner’s Syndrome because the condition is extremely rare. I had several panels of genetic testing which eventually detected that I had a gene deletion of the VCAN-8 gene. To date, there are less than three hundred cases in the world.
- D&A: How did swimming help you cope with losing your vision?
MH: The first thing I asked my mom when I went blind was if I would still be able to swim. I loved swimming and I had a passion for competing. I was so scared because if I could not see, I would not be able to swim. I quickly learned to adapt however, and I never turned back. Swimming gives me an outlet and a place where I can feel comfortable and confident. Once I am in the water, I am seen as an equal and not different from those around me. I am free in the water; I am not restricted by a cane or a guide. The water was really a place where I can vent my sadness and frustration, and at the same time make lifelong memories and friends.
- D&A: What challenges did you face during your younger school years after your vision loss? What did you do to adapt/overcome these challenges?
MH: My biggest challenges in school was not being able to get from one room to the other and the perpetual bullying. Because of the bullying, I was afraid to use my different types of assistive technology. I was afraid of what my peers would say about me. I was often called names such as ‘Cyclops’ and ‘Freak.’Kids would purposely push me into things or walk in front of me, knowing I could not see them. However, I did find, or they found me, a really great group of friends who banded around me and helped guide me through my school. They were amazing and continuously encouraged me to use my assistive technology, to use my cane, and to self -advocate for my needs.
- D&A: How do you prepare for a competition?
MH: I prepare for competitions by focusing my training on the different events I will be swimming. I am a distance swimmer, so I compete in the longer freestyle races. When competition gets close, I focus on pacing for these specific events. I also work extensively on my strength outside of the pool where I focus on my dryland training working on my core and leg strength. I do a great deal of stretching and mindfulness exercises before competitions to keep my mind and body connected and focused on the upcoming event(s).
- D&A: Every athlete has something unique to help them get ready for each game. Lebron James is known for his powder toss at the beginning of the game. Do you have your own pre-event ritual?
MH: I do not have any specific “rituals” or routines. Before competition, I just try to focus on myself on what I must do and not my other competitors. I use music to block everyone else out and focus on the race ahead.
- D&A: How do blind athletes adapt to swimming without the black line?
MH: Blind swimmers use different techniques to adapt to swimming. I specifically trail my fingertips along the lane line that divides the lanes. I use this as a tool to keep me straight in the lane. I also count my strokes and use a sprinkler during practice to know when I am near or at the wall. During competition, I use a ‘tapper,’ which is a pole with a tennis ball attached at the end and my coaches use it to alert me that I am near the wall by tapping me on the head. This takes a great deal of practice for both the swimmer and the tapper to feel comfortable with the process.
- D&A: What was your most challenging competition to date? Why was it so challenging?
MH: My most challenging competition was probably the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. Although it was my dream to compete at the Paralympic Games, I was exhausted from all the hard work that went into preparing for the Games. I was gone from home for over a month, and I was unable to see my parents for several weeks. The competition was also the longest competition I had ever competed in at the time. The meet is 10 days long and you could go several days without competing. During this time, it was hard to keep my mind focused on my upcoming races knowing I had long stretches of breaks between events. At only 15 years old, it was hard to be in a new country, with people who spoke a different language, and away from my parents and home for so long. It was an extremely rewarding experience to compete in Rio, but it is also mentally and physically exhausting on one’s mind and body.
- D&A: What type of joy does being an athlete bring you?
MH: I simply have joy being into the pool every day. Although I sometimes gripe and complain about the early mornings and cold-water temperature of the pool, I love to swim. The pool is my ‘happy place,’and I honestly cannot imagine life without swimming.
- D&A: Who is your favorite athlete? Which of their qualities do you admire?
MH: My favorite athlete is Missy Franklin. I love her attitude towards life and swimming and the way she never lets adversity hold her back. She is an amazing person, athlete, friend, and mentor to me. I look up to her dedication and drive and the way she is able to balance life and swimming. She is also tall, and I am not!
- D&A: How is college going? How does being involved in athletics make you a better student?
MH: I love college! I have so much more independence and freedom than I did back at home. I am from a very rural town in Georgia and public transportation was not readily available. I had to rely on those around me to take me everywhere. My swim team was 45 minutes away from my home, so it was a struggle getting to and from practice multiple times a day. At Loyola, I am able to walk with my guide dog to so many places, including the pool! I love the balance I have now created between school and swim. After practice I go to class, then go back to practice, and then I do homework or go to class again. I am taking classes I enjoy and ones I am passionate about. That makes the balance between student and athlete much easier.
- D&A: In addition to swimming, what other passions or hobbies do you enjoy?
MH: I really enjoy writing and public speaking. I am pursuing a degree in communications with a specialization in journalism. I hope to be a professional speaker and author one day. In the meantime, I enjoy writing for my school’s magazine as well as writing for Swimming World Magazine.
- D&A: In December of 2020, you had an amazing opportunity to write for Swimming World Magazine. Can you tell us about that experience?
MH: I am currently a journalism intern with Swimming Word Magazine. I am having the amazing opportunity to pursue my passion of writing while also focusing on swimming, and that is a perfect combination for me.
- D&A: What is your suggestion for parents/families to empower children with disabilities?
MH: I would tell parents or families of a child with a disability to not limit your child. Let them take chances, as they are capable of way more than you could ever imagine. Let your child explore activities and then be there to encourage them at all levels, win or lose. Any accomplishment is a step forward, so keep moving forward. Do not be afraid of living, loving, and moving toward that dream.
- D&A: Can you give tips/advice for those in our community who are interested in competitive swimming?
MH: I think the best advice I could give to someone looking to start swimming is to just dive in! You have to start somewhere, and the first step is getting in the water. If you have a bad or an off day, strive harder to make the next day better. And as always, just keep swimming.