Finding Success With Para & Division I

By Peggy Ewald

Northeastern University graduate Kelley Becherer found common ground competing for not only an NCAA D1 institution but also for Team USA in three Paralympic Games, Athens, Beijing and London.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kelley as part of the staff during two of those Games and other Team USA meets.  As a consultant for U.S. Paralympics Swimming, one of my outcome goals is to grow the collegiate and high school experience for coaches and athletes.

I’m sharing Kelley’s success story on how she and her Head Coach Roy Coates found common ground to make it work. Kelley found a good matchmaking her collegiate swimming career impactful, earning her degree while earning a total of 7 Paralympic medals, 3 Gold and 4 Bronze.  

During Kelley’s four years at Northeastern University as varsity swimming student athlete, she was part of two school relay records and qualified for finals at championships for the 200 and 100 yards freestyles.

In her Paralympic career that spanned three Paralympic Games, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, and London 2012. She won a total of 7 Paralympic medals, three (3) gold and four (4) bronze. Gold in Beijing ’08 in the 50 freestyle and London ’12, she repeated gold in the 50 freestyle and also swam to gold in the 100 freestyle. Kelley also participated in two (2) World Championships, (2006 and 2010) winning five (5) gold medals and five (5) bronze medals. While para-swimming she held world records in the 200 free, 50 fly, and 50 back. She also held countless American records over her 10 years of Paralympic swimming, holding almost all the S13 American Records at one point. To this day, she still holds the 50 and 100 free LCM American Records. 

In 2015, Kelley graduated from Northeastern University with a doctorate in physical therapy. She currently is working for UC San Diego as a physical therapist at an outpatient sports orthopedic clinic.  She is currently working on the development of a return to swimming program for patient use. 

Ewald: How did you approach finding a collegiate program you could compete for as a varsity athlete and pursue your Paralympic goals?

Kelley: When I was looking at potential schools, I did my research.  I found schools with the degree area, then I researched the swimming team to see if my times matched up in the ranges that would be competitive for the school.  If those two things matched and I liked the campus location etc., I made a visit. I meet with the coaches and shared my Paralympics goals and commitments. If they were on board with it and even excited about it, I highly considered the school. I also informed the staff of my limitations and needs to make sure it would be a good match for the institution, program, coaches and myself.

Ewald: How did your coach adapt to your disability needs, if any, and how did your team respond?

Kelley: All my coaches in college were very helpful. Being visual impaired, my main limitation with practices was seeing the clock. I was assigned a warm up lane to be close to the clock when possible. Otherwise, my coaches would call out when to go and times when I came into the wall. Northeastern even purchased a small portable clock for the other end of the pool so it was close to my lane. Additionally, coaches made sure I could hear when they read the set off the board at start of practice. All very helpful, but my teammates might have been even better. They recognized that I couldn’t see my time at the end of a race. One of my teammate would ALWAYS tell me my time and place before I even got out of the water.

Ewald:  How did the collegiate season line up with the training you needed to be prepared for the big Paralympic meets?

Kelley:   My college season and big Para meets did not 100% line up, but it was close enough to make it work.  I could train and taper alongside my college teammates and compete in the same meets, including our mid-season taper meet and our championship meet, contributing points.  However, it also meant that I was often training and tapering partially on my own or with a few team members for Para meets. Sometimes this was just a week, but regarding the Games it was all summer.  My coaches were there every day on deck with workouts, critiques, and encouragement. The same as it would be if they had an athlete going to Olympic Games.

Ewald:   What is the largest impact swimming in college had on you?  On your contribution to the team?

Kelley :College swimming gave me a support group and invaluable training partners to help push me towards my college swimming goals and to achieve my Paralympic goals. Without the team atmosphere, I would not have swam as fast as I did. Long term, college swimming has given me some amazing lifelong friendship as well as profession connections. Recently, I have been working (as a physical therapist) with swimmer injuries, as the doctors at my clinic are very excited about my swimming background. It is hard to sum up the major impact college swimming had on who I am and what I am doing professionally. 

On the other hand, as a freshman, I brought 5 years of international competition experience to the team. I had knowledge of high level training, and the dedication it took to be an elite athlete. Those experience allowed me to be a leader on the team.  I earned my position on many A relays. Through my para-swimming success, I was able to bring positive publicity to the team and university.

Ewald How did the campus community respond to your Paralympic involvement?  Did they help promote you and your collegiate team/coach?

Kelley: Northeastern was 110% behind me and all its Olympians. They gave me access to the pool and weight rooms whenever I needed. They wrote articles, even made a promo video to highlight my journey. It was more support than I could have ever hoped for. Even my teachers were willing to work with me to make being gone for a month for London manageable. I got coaching support all the way through the games, facetiming often. 

Ewald   Is there anything about your collegiate experience that you would do differently knowing what you do now?

Kelley: I don’t think so. I trained harder than I ever had, and smarter. I did successful dryland routines and cross training. I had amazing support from staff, coaches, and teammates. It was not easy to balance my big class load for physical therapy and swim, but I have no regrets. I knew going in my coaches were excited and willing to work with me to meet not only my collegiate goals but also my Paralympics goals. 

Overall, I knew I wanted to swim in college. I was not ready to be done with the sport, partially due to Paralympic goals but also personal goals. It was always the plan to find a college that I could swim for and be a part of the team.  I was lucky, my research and finding the right match gave me a great experience. I keep in touch with teammates and coaches 6 years later. I wouldn’t change a thing.