Winning medals is nothing new for Elizabeth Marks. After all, the three-time Paralympian has a couple to her name. But earning them for a stroke that is not in her wheelhouse is something foreign to her.
In Rio, Marks earned gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and bronze in the 4x100-meter medley relay (swimming backstroke). But this was her first time swimming freestyle in a Paralympic final — and at such a short distance.
Army sergeant and Prescott Valley, Arizona, native is known for her fast pace, but after finishing second in tonight’s 50-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, she will no longer be able to keep her sprinting skills a secret.
Her first-place finish in the prelims with a time of 33.16 was a Paralympic record — and just off the world record line. The accomplishment had her in the top seed headed into finals.
“It’s kind of a newer event,” the 31-year-old admitted modestly after coming out of the water. “My coach has been very patient with me, so it’s still in the learning phase.”
Out-touched at the wall by .04 seconds, Marks split Ukrainian powerhouses Yelyzaveta Mereshko and Anna Hontar, who finished first and third. Mereshko’s time of 33.11 broke Marks’ earlier record, earning her another Games gold —making five in total.
Admitting she was “exhausted” after tonight’s race, Marks has more medal chances later in the Games: competing in the 100-meter backstroke where she will aim to defend her gold medal win from Rio, 100-meter breaststroke and 200m Individual Medley.
In the women’s 400m freestyle – S9, Team USA’s Summer Schmit and Natalie Sims earned a spot in the finals after putting down impressive times in the prelims earlier in the day.
For Sims, it was her best time. And the 24-year-old has been down the pool and back a few times. She competed in Rio 2016, where she placed eighth in the 400-meter free. Her seventh-place finish in prelims earned her the chance to try to best that in another Paralympic final.
But despite coming off the blocks quickly — and .03 seconds faster than the eventual leader — she would go on to repeat her eighth-place finish from Rio.
“Just making the finals was super awesome, and especially making it with Summer. Super fun to come back here,” Sims said.
The Summer she was referring to is Summer Schmit, her 18-year-old teammate making her Paralympic debut.
Born without a right hand, Schmit grew up playing soccer and doing gymnastics, but at 11, she took up swimming and track competitively. In June, she earned her spot on the team at trials, swimming her personal best in the 400-meter freestyle with a time of 4:57.86.
Tonight, she beat that time again, finishing in seventh and a new personal best of 4:56.92.
“It’s been amazing,” Schmit said about her experience thus far. “Kind of terrifying at times, but in a good way. And it’s been a ton of fun to have great teammates like Natalie right next to me.”
The teammates finished only two seconds apart. Australia’s Lakeisha Patterson took the gold with a time of 4:36.68, out-touching Hungary’s Zsofia Konkoly. Earning the bronze was Great Britain’s Toni Shaw with a time of 4:39.32.
Sims and Schmit, both Minnesota natives, will compete in additional races over the coming days.
“This has been a completely different training process, you know, with COVID and everything, so I’m super excited,” Sims said. “And I’m looking forward to the rest of my races here.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo-2020-Paralympic-Games to view the medal table and results.
Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2011.