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Jamal Hill, a Paralympic medalist recognized by United Nations, works to be one with water

Jamal Hill

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 29: Bronze medalist Jamal Hill of Team United States poses during the medal ceremony for the Men’s 50m Freestyle - S9 Final on day 5 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on August 29, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

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Given Jamal Hill‘s unique swimming story, it is no surprise that the 27-year-old doesn’t just stow his Paralympic medal in a typical place like on a mantle or inside a sock drawer.

Asked its location, the 6-foot-4 Hill let out a belly laugh.

“At this very moment,” he said, “my Paralympic medal is in the glove box in my car.”

Hill, who dropped out of Hiram College, a Division III program in Ohio, with a dream to become a professional, Olympic swimmer, lives by a Bruce Lee mantra.

“The goal is to be one with the water,” Hill said in a ready room at last month’s U.S. Paralympics National Championships in Charlotte. “So that’s pretty much what I’m always thinking about, man. Just trying to -- air quote -- create my own style, but really have absolutely no style.”

What’s clear is there is no swimmer with a story like Hill’s. At the start of the last Paralympic cycle, Hill was still keeping his Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) diagnosis from age 10 a secret -- “living in denial about my disability” -- with an end goal of the Olympic Games.

CMT is a hereditary neurological condition that can result in progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation in the body. In swimming, CMT put him at a disadvantage off the blocks, losing up to a meter to a training partner by the time he splashed.

By the close of the last quadrennium, Hill was sponsored by Speedo and leaving Tokyo with a 50m freestyle bronze medal at the Paralympic Games. He followed that by taking silver at last year’s world championships. Hill’s progression would seemingly make him target gold at this year’s worlds and perhaps the 2024 Paris Games.

That is far from his sole focus, however.

“You can’t just be doing it for the medal,” he said. “We’ve all seen it time and again. When people reach the heights of the sport, when they finally get that gold medal, and then it’s like, well, you mean to tell me this piece of metal isn’t going to fill that void of emptiness inside of me? And then it’s all downhill from there.”

Hill has ambitions beyond the four-lane, 25-yard pool where he trains in Pasadena, California. He runs his own pro team, the Swim Up Hill Victors, with six regulars as well as guests cycling in.

This past September, Hill was named by the United Nations as one of 17 worldwide young change-makers leading efforts to “combat the world’s most pressing issues” and achieve “sustainable development goals.”

Credit the recognition to Swim Up Hill, the non-profit he founded with a goal to teach one million people per year how to swim (actor Terry Crews was an early graduate). Hill said it had 3,000 pupils last year and is already locked in to reach at least 12,000 people this year through partnerships with 55 YMCAs, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Los Angeles and more international programs.

The plan is to quadruple that number annually over the next several years and be over a million in 2028, the year Los Angeles hosts the Olympics and Paralympics. By then, Hill and his coach, Wilma Wong, hope that one of the swimmers at the Games is a person of color who learned to swim through Up Hill.

It’s ambitious, but consider the 54-year-old Wong’s story, too. She was never a competitive swimmer. She didn’t start instructing swimmers on technique until 2016, when, as a mental performance coach, she added timing athletes with a watch to her duties. She had no experience guiding an Olympic or Paralympic-level swimmer when she met Hill in 2017.

Wong supported Hill’s initial goal to go from a Division III dropout to the Olympics, but things began to change when Wong saw Hill using his arms to drag his legs out of his car and the pool.

“She pretty much confronted me, and I kind of came out of the closet [about my CMT diagnosis] to her,” Hill said.

Wong suggested the Paralympics. Hill rebuffed.

“I definitely will not be doing that because of the stigma surrounding disability,” he remembered. “Who wants to feel like other people are looking down on them, right? That’s a stigma that we’re constantly battling in society.”

Hill changed his mind a few months later when a British swimmer visited and, separate from Wong, also suggested the Paralympics. The coach called it divine intervention.

“No one else has said anything about it in 12 years,” Hill said. “I’m a person of faith. I believe in God, the spirit of the universe. And I’m just like, well, this seems like a viable opportunity for me to continue to pursue this dream [to be a professional swimmer], to make it a reality. Let me swallow my ego, swallow my pride. Let me see what this is about.”

In 2018, Hill won the 50m and 100m frees in his division at his first U.S. Paralympics Nationals. At the same meet, he said a family member told him that Grover Evans, believed to be the first Black swimmer on a U.S. Paralympic team, was his great cousin.

In 1977, Evans fell asleep while driving, swerved into a ditch, flipped over several times and was pronounced dead twice at a hospital before waking up, according to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. He survived as a quadriplegic and, 15 years later, made his first of three Paralympic teams at age 40. He was 56 at his last Games in 2008. Evans died in 2017 at 65.

In 2021, Hill signed with Speedo a month before the Paralympic trials. Not only had he yet to make the team for Tokyo, he also had yet to be classified to be eligible for the Games.

Even after Hill flew to Brazil and checked off classification, then broke the American 50m free record at trials, Wong said the goal at the Games was simply to make the final. “It was a long shot to medal,” she said. But Wong said Hill thrives under pressure. In the Paralympic final, he lowered his American record again and snagged the bronze.

Hill became the second Black American swimmer in recent history to win a Paralympic medal after Curtis Lovejoy, a four-time medalist between 2000 and 2004. The USOPC could not confirm if anybody won a medal before Lovejoy did.

Then at this past June’s world championships, Hill shared 50m free silver behind Italian Simone Barlaam, who equaled his world record and won by a whopping 1.66 seconds. Barlaam had defeated Hill by less than a half-second at the Paralympics.

Hill’s work is clearly cut out in a race where he swims for 25 seconds while taking one breath. But that is not all he is striving for.

“This piece of metal is not going to make you a better human being,” Hill said. “It’s about the person that you become along the process.”

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