FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — When doctors told Taylor Winnett she would never swim competitively again, she was devastated. But through perseverance and personal courage, she proved them wrong by becoming a para-swimmer and member of the U.S. Paralympics 2022 National Team — and she is breaking records while doing it.
The Hershey, Pennsylvania, native, who is married to Spc. Jeric Winnett, a combat engineer with the 595th Sapper Company, came from a family of swimmers — her mother was a swim coach, and her older sister was a swimmer. Winnett started swimming as an infant, and was competing by the time she was four.
Winnett competed athlete for the next 13 years, and had plans to swim in college, until a series of accidents in 2016 changed the course of her life forever.
In August of that year, a jet-ski accident left her with two herniated discs in her spine. Despite her injuries, she committed to swimming competitively at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. A few months later, in October, a fall resulted in a fractured vertebrae and a Tarlov cyst at the base of the spine that can cause pain and limit movement.
With the new diagnosis, she was forced to complete her senior year of high school online and withdraw from college swimming. She was left trying to figure out what her life was going to look like now that competitive swimming was off the table.
“The year after was awful, and the pain was terrible,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep, or I’d sleep too much — I was very, very depressed and even started to think about suicide. I didn’t know what to do with my life — I was lost.”
Winnett went on to attend Loyola University Maryland, and was swimming in the college pool one day, when a simple question from the swim coach set off another major change in her life.
“He asked me if I had heard about Paralympic Swimming, and suggested I may be eligible,” she said. “I started looking into it and tried to get classified that year, but was told I needed to get my pain under control.”
After two-and-a-half years of pain management and rehabilitation with supportive doctors and physical therapists, who helped her rehabilitate in order to compete safely, Winnett was nationally classified three years ago to compete as an S10, SM10 and SB9 — a classification system that ensures fairness among competitors. She competed as a para-swimmer for the first time at the 2019 Bill Keating Jr. Para-Swimming Open in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The achievement offered Winnett a second chance for something else, too — freedom.
“The water is my safe place away from my braces, cane and fear of falling,” Winnett said. “I am grateful for my mobility aids giving me the freedom on land I once didn’t have, but nothing compares to flying through the water.”
While in college, Winnett met her husband, who had just graduated college himself but had yet to join the Army. The couple eloped in Rolla, Missouri, in April 2021, and have called Fort Leonard Wood home for the past year.
Swimming resources offered by the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation have proven to be valuable, Winnett said.
She trains through the Master Swim Program offered three times a week at Davidson Fitness Center, and said she is impatiently waiting for the outdoor pool to open, so she can begin training long course — which requires an Olympic-size pool with a minimum length of 50 meters.
“I love how close Davidson is to our house, and with masters swimming starting late last year, I have more time to train, since the pool is open later,” she said. “I feel blessed every day to be healthy enough to compete, as well as have access to a pool to train.”
Capt. Thomas Inwood, a U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School small group instructor, started the Master Swim Program in October 2021, and first met Winnett swimming laps at Davidson Fitness Center. When the program kicked off, he said she was one of the first athletes to consistently attend the practices.
“Taylor is truly an inspiration to watch and coach,” he said. “Overcoming the adversity she has through her injury, and being a para-athlete, speaks volumes to her character.”
Currently a C Standard Swimmer on the National Team, Winnett said during the 2022 Para Swimming World Series Indianapolis in April, she missed National Team B status in two events by about one-fourth of a second, but said she hopes to achieve the status either at the California Classic Swim Meet in Yucaipa, California, in September, or the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships expected to occur in December.
While she did not make the B standard in Indianapolis — she did break an American record on May 8, during her second time competing in Cincinnati. She broke the Women’s 50 Backstroke Long Course Meter American Record for Paralympic Swimming in the S10 classification.
She also won the Women’s 50 Long Course Meter Freestyle Multi-Class, Women’s 100 Long Course Meter Backstroke Multi-Class and Women’s 100 Long Course Meter Butterfly Multi-Class in the S10 classification during the event.
As accomplished as she is, Winnett said it isn’t all about winning.
“Trying to earn a medal is just one aspect of being a professional swimmer,” she said. “If all you focus on is how you measure up to other swimmers, you lose the love for the sport.”
Another focus for Winnett, is advocacy. While she understands that as someone with an acquired disability, her experience differs when compared to that of people who have been disabled from birth. She is thankful for how her experience opened her eyes and the opportunity it presents for her to make a change.
She said society often puts people with disabilities in a box and that para-sports helps challenge those preconceived notions.
“Society often focuses on what we cannot do,” she said. “Para-sports help show the world what we can do.”
Winnett said she experienced bullying in college and being a young woman with a cane made her very self-conscious. “I had people make fun of me for it,” she said. “But now, I have this incredible opportunity to raise awareness and acceptance of disabilities, while competing in the sport I love and meeting amazing people from around the world.”
Looking toward the future, Winnett intends to compete as long as possible.
This July, she plans to attend a training camp at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she will have the opportunity to meet with sports psychologists, nutritionists, trainers and coaching staff, and also compete in the 2022 Jimi Flowers Classic at the end of the camp.
She hopes to be named to the World Championship Team next year, and has her eyes set on being part of the Paris Paralympic Team, which will compete in the 2024 Paralympic Games, hosted in Paris, France.
After all she’s been through, Winnett said she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I had to mourn the life I had before, but now I wouldn’t change it,” she said. “I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, and the people I’ve met since breaking my back. If you don’t go through challenges, you don’t know how to enjoy life.”