Aimee Copeland dives off the starting blocks during warmups last month at the Paralympic National Swimming Championships in Tucson, Ariz. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

No surprise Aimee Copeland’s still capturing hearts. But gold medals?

The temperature hovered around 40 degrees. Atlantan Aimee Copeland shivered beneath a navy Speedo parka near the heated swimming pool. From the cold. From a bad case of nerves.

It was Dec. 15, the second day of the 2018 Paralympic National Swimming Championships, and the first hadn’t gone so well.

Copeland, a 30-year-old amputee, swam the 50-meter backstroke and was bouncing all over the place. She looked up and peered at the scoreboard. She was second again.

Now, scoping out the competition, she worried if she’d ever manage to swim a straight line, but as she’d done many times before, Copeland had a little talk with herself.

“I decided that I was going to relax, and that’s what I did,” she said.

She made her way into the pool, hitting the lane lines a few times, but willing herself to go faster, to do better, and then it was time.

RELATED: Aimee’s Odyssey

At 9:30 a.m., she got in place behind the starting block, and her coach held her arms to help stabilize her. The horn sounded and he let go.

Copeland pushed off, talking to herself, singing. Push and glide. Strong. Strong. Another one bites the dusts, until finally she reached the other side.

“I felt a rush of adrenaline,” she remembered recently. “All my hard work had paid off.”

Aimee Copeland won two gold medals and came in second place in four other categories last month at the Paralympic National Swimming Championships in Tucson, Ariz. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Copeland, clocking 2:40, had captured the first of two gold medals she’d win during the three-day competition.

How you do that with no hands and just one leg is a wonder, but the truth is we’ve come to expect nothing less from Aimee Copeland.

She first captured our imaginations and hearts in 2012, when she fell from a zip line and a flesh-eating bacteria entered her body. To save her life, doctors had to amputate her left leg, right foot and both her hands.

In the years since then, Copeland has earned two master’s degrees, one in social work and one in psychology. In 2017, she created the Aimee Copeland Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free therapeutic services to people with disabilities. When she isn’t putting in 12-hour days providing private psychotherapy at HeartWork Counseling Center, she rises at 5 a.m. to swim.

Except for a few lessons when she was 3, Copeland’s relationship with water had been limited to the shower and sunning on the beach.

Then last fall, a friend invited her for a swim at her church pool.

“I was just making it up, kinda jogging in the water, but I fell in love,” Copeland said.

She’d tried maintaining an exercise routine, walking the treadmill, but it was creating sores on her skin graft. In the water, she wouldn’t have to worry about that. Plus, swimming was great for cardio.

She admits looking “kind of stupid coming off the block.” And a lot of people looking at her funny.

“I think half of them are trying to figure out what happened to me and the other half are afraid they might have to rescue me,” she said. “After, they come up and say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, you’re faster than me.’”

RELATED: How Aimee Copeland will use nature to help others with disabilities

After a few months of her doggie paddling, the church pool closed for renovations, and Copeland transferred to a YMCA before discovering the Windy Hill Athletic Club. Besides being right off the interstate, it had the wheelchair accessibility she needed and a lot of swim instructors.

One morning, one of them, Keith Berryhill, noticed Copeland.

Aimee Copeland poses with coach Keith Berryhill before the Paralympic National Swimming Championships last month in Tucson, Ariz. They met when Copeland started swimming at the Windy Hill Athletic Club. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

You could be breaking world records here every morning and not even know it, he said to her.

Copeland wasn’t but Berryhill started offering her tips — how to freestyle and do strokes.

Then one morning, he asked if she’d ever considered competing. She hadn’t but he encouraged her to keep swimming. She did and he kept offering her pointers.

In June, he told her about the upcoming Fred Lamback Disability Meet. It was for new swimmers with disabilities mainly, but one could become classified for the Paralympics, where people with all sorts of disabilities compete.

Copeland signed up and swam in five events, performing well enough to classify as an S5 and for the national championship.

“I was shocked,” she said, laughing.

RELATED: Aimee Copeland’s moment of clarity

Copeland then signed up for a masters meet at Georgia Tech for extra practice and in December headed to Tucson, Ariz., for the national competition, where she captured two golds.

When we talked early this month, she was about to head to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to hopefully improve her time.

“I’ve got to get a lot faster to meet Team USA standards if I want to have a shot at the big times,” she said, laughter bubbling up once more. “I’ll try anything once, and if I like it, I’ll try it twice.”

She thought about that for a moment and shared one more thing she intends to try.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I’m going to take voice lessons,” she offered with a twinkle in her eye. “I can’t sing worth anything, but that’s what this has taught me. You don’t know what you could be good at until you give it a shot. There’s a million activities, a million talents, a million gifts that one could have, but if you’re never open to taking a lesson, giving it a shot, you never find out what your talent could be. I want to try everything now. Who knows. Maybe I’m an amazing Alpine skier.”

With Aimee Copeland, no one ever really knows. Not even Aimee Copeland. The good thing is she’s not afraid to find out.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

VAN GIVEAWAY

In a partnership with AMS Vans and the Friends of Disabled Adults and Children, Aimee Copeland will gift the reconditioned 2012 Honda Odyssey van donated to her to someone who uses a power wheelchair for their disability.

Apply from now until Feb. 7 at aimeecopelandfoundation.org. A winner will be announced March 1.

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