As soon as Kelley Becherer popped her head out of the water, she looked toward the scoreboard. She couldn’t quite make out the results.
The 19-year-old Sheboygan, Wisc., native, who is legally blind, had no idea she had just won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic games.
“I couldn’t see the time on the board,” says Becherer, who will enter Northeastern as a freshman this fall. When she heard her name announced as the victor—her time, 27.85 seconds, bested the second-place finisher’s mark by three one-thousandths of a second—she was stunned.
She remembers: “I was like, ‘No way.’ Standing on the podium and getting the gold medal was unbelievable. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Becherer also competed at the 2004 Paralympics, in Athens, when she was just 13 years old. Small wonder swimming and diving coach Roy Coates is thrilled to welcome her to Northeastern, where she will compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and backstroke events. Her years of experience in national and international competitions will be a big boost for his squad, which last year finished in eighth place at the Colonial Athletic Association championship.
“Not only is Kelley a very competitive athlete who trains hard, she’s been competing on the world stage and has been exposed to the best that United States swimming has to offer,” Coates explains. “She’ll bring a unique perspective to the women on the team who have not had that type of exposure.”
Over the past few years, Becherer has burned up the record books. Earlier this month, she set a Paralympic world record in the 50-meter backstroke at the Speedo CanAm Championships, in Edmonton, Alberta. She also snagged gold in the 100-meter butterfly and backstroke events.
To round out her gold-medal performance in Beijing, she took home bronze medals in the 100- and 400-meter freestyles. At the International Paralympic Committee Championships in 2006, she earned a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and bronze medals in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle.
Becherer says that being visually impaired—she has 20/400 vision—impacts her ability to gauge turns at the end wall and keep an eye on her fellow swimmers (“I can’t see the competition unless we’re neck and neck” is how she describes it).
But it doesn’t limit her competitiveness in any way. “I just go for it,” she says. “It doesn’t stop me from being on relay teams, and I haven’t found anyone who’s not accepting.”
Over the summer, she trained at a breakneck pace with the Ozaukee Aquatics Swim Club in Wisconsin, hitting the pool as many as 10 times per week.
Becherer comes from a family of athletes; her mother swam in high school, and her dad played college baseball. She started swimming young, at age 6. By the time she was 13, she was competing at the YMCA Spring Nationals in Florida.
“I love competing and racing,” she says. “It sounds weird, but I like working through the pain and getting the best time. I love that feeling, especially when you work so hard for it.”
Just weeks before she hits the water for her first Northeastern practice, Becherer is excited but not nervous, she says. She’ll be ready for the team’s first meet, less than two months away.
“I don’t know what to expect,” she says. “I’m going to train hard and hope I get a lot faster.”