Para Swimming's Jamal Hill: How I Embraced My Disability And Became A Paralympic Medal Swimmer
by Jamal Hill
My journey to becoming a Paralympic athlete started with a secret — a secret I carried for more than a decade. At the age of 10, I was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), a hereditary neurological condition that affects my peripheral nerves, making simple tasks like walking and running challenging. For 12 years, I kept this diagnosis hidden, even from my closest friends, coaches and teammates. It was a point of shame and something I felt I had to overcome on my own.
When I was growing up, we never gave my diagnosis a name. We never wanted to give it power. If we don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist, right? In the end, that made me tough.
But keeping that secret was isolating. When I would have shortcomings as an athlete, or just in general — I was always tripping, falling, breaking things, dropping things — I refused to blame it on my disease.
I didn’t want to make excuses, mostly because I feared that people wouldn’t believe me. It’s easy to look at someone who is missing a foot and see why they would have a hard time kicking a soccer ball — but the same can’t be said for me.
Silently bearing my secret, I persevered through the pain and the constant dread of discovery. I was terrified of being seen as different and therefore treated differently. I was able to hide my condition so well that I even earned a swimming scholarship to Hiram College in Northeast Ohio.
But in 2017, at the age of 22, I dropped out of college to pursue my dream of becoming a professional swimmer, with hopes of one day making it to the Olympics. I had never discussed my condition openly, nor had I accepted it as part of my identity. It was a secret I had locked away in a proverbial closet.
It wasn’t until 2018 that my swim coach, Wilma Wong, noticed something different about the way I moved. She pulled me aside and respectfully mentioned that I reminded her of someone living with cerebral palsy. This was the first time in 12 years that anyone had acknowledged my condition, and the first time I outwardly admitted that I had been living with CMT.
This newfound visibility brought both relief and challenges. Wilma encouraged me to confront my reality and consider the possibility that my condition might impact my Olympic dreams. It was a tough conversation, one that I initially resisted. I was afraid of being labeled and judged. I didn’t want my disability to define me, let alone derail my aspirations.
So, I shut down the idea, vowing never to speak about it again. However, fate had other plans. A few months later, a friend from England came to train with us. During our workouts and film reviews, he pointed out that my legs didn’t work properly and suggested I explore the Paralympics. It was the second time in six months that someone had brought this to my attention.
This time, something clicked. I realized that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I decided to embrace my disability, acknowledge my challenges, and explore the world of Paralympic swimming. Within six months, I went from sharing my secret with a select few to competing on the Paralympic circuit.
It wasn’t an easy journey. I’ve faced countless ups and downs, from self-doubt to moments of triumph. I’ve learned that nobody would willingly choose to have a disability. Living with CMT has its unique set of challenges, both physical and emotional. But it’s a part of who I am, and I’ve come to accept that.
Now, in 2023, I represent Team USA as a Paralympic swimmer — having proudly earned a bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games. I’ve realized that my disability doesn’t define me; it empowers me. I’ve had the privilege of inspiring others living with CMT and showing them what’s possible. My journey has taught me that self-belief, resilience and a supportive community can overcome even the toughest of obstacles.
When I experience pain, particularly as a professional athlete, I always remind myself that the people I train and compete alongside are enduring their own hardships. This journey is undeniably painful for all of us. While they might not display it as prominently as you do, rest assured, everyone is grappling with their own pain.
Finding solace in the fact that every individual is facing their own battles, we’re united in navigating life’s challenges. We’re all in this together, striving to hold on and find reasons to smile whenever possible.
Looking ahead, my future in the sport is bright. I have my sights set on competing in the Paris Paralympics 2024 and continuing to be a part of Team USA in the years to come. I’m determined not only to participate but to win another medal and make my country proud.
As for my life with CMT, I’ve become an advocate, mentor and coach for others living with similar challenges. I aim to show them that embracing their true selves and their conditions can lead to a life of achievement and fulfillment.
CMT is a progressive disease and I’m not even supposed to be walking now, so I imagine I shouldn’t be walking at 70. But I plan on continuing to walk — and falling down however many times that takes.
My journey has shown me that acknowledging our challenges and confronting our fears can lead to a life beyond our wildest dreams. And if I could go back in time and speak to my college self, I would say, “Trust your instincts, embrace who you are and don’t be afraid to share your story.”
As told to Lisa Costantini