There are no more "Why Me?" moments for Anna Eames.
Self-conscious in grade school, and embarrassed to participate in gym class, she will be in London next week as swim team co-captain and defending gold medalist in the women's 100-meter butterfly in the Paralympic Games.
"I feel so lucky and blessed because I'm asking myself now, 'How did this happen to me? How did I ever get this opportunity?'" said Eames, a 21-year old senior at Gustavus Adolphus.
"I get to travel the world. What 15-year-old gets to hop on a plane with all her friends and go to Africa or other parts of the world to swim? I've met some inspiring people who've shared their stories, and met some of my best friends, and toured these awesome places all while getting the chance to swim."
Eames grew up in Golden Valley facing several surgeries because of fibular hemimelia. She had hip dysplasia, her left leg was longer than the right, she was missing two toes on her right foot, and she had an abnormal ankle joint.
"I wanted to be able to do what everyone else did," she said.
She took up swimming, which was less painful than other sports, and the days of feeling embarrassed are now long gone.
"It's been an incredible ride for Anna," said U.S. Paralympics swim coach Tom Franke, a teacher at Hopkins High School. "The growth in Anna's character has been phenomenal to see. Watching her grow up and mature has been special."
Eames' right foot -- the only visible evidence of her disability -- has an Olympic tattoo inked across it.
"It draws attention when I wear flip-flops and people stare, but I don't care. They need to be exposed to people with disabilities," Eames said.
She has been an international competitor for six years, emerged in Beijing with her gold medal, and also won bronze in the 100 freestyle thanks to meticulous preparation.
"There has to be something that differentiates someone from standing on the podium in the top three places from all the other girls that are vying to be there," Franke said. "When you look at meets sometimes, when they are won or lost by hundredths of seconds.
"She always pays close, close attention to the little details, asks the right questions and communicates. She's a coach's dream."
Gold medal girl
Eames' victory in Beijing came at age 17, two years after her world championship in the same event. Participating in the S10 class (at the time, for athletes with the mildest disabilities), she finished the race in 1 minute, 9.44 seconds.
"I look at the scoreboard and I see that I posted a 1:09 and someone else swam a 1:10. I was so flustered I couldn't think which time was faster," she remembered with a laugh. "Then I saw just my face on the scoreboard. I hugged my coach and as I'm listening to my anthem and watching my flag go up, I'm so emotional. I'm realizing everything that America stands for."
Her parents watched proudly from the stands.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Ward Eames said. "My wife and I love her regardless whether she wins medals or not. Our love and pride does not stem solely from her accomplishments in the water -- although those are significant."
In addition to the gold and bronze in 2008, she was fourth in both the 50 and 400 freestyles and fifth in the 200 individual medley.
Eames started swimming competitively at Hopkins, where she was on the high school team and participated in qualifying for the Paralympics. She set an American record in the 100 butterfly final to qualify for the Beijing team.
Success followed her to Gustavus, where she competes against able-bodied athletes. The Gusties won their third consecutive MIAC title last season as Eames finished fourth in the 1-mile event, 10th in the 500-yard freestyle and 13th in the 200-yard butterfly.
Grad school ahead
Once terrified of anything associated with hospitals, Eames is now a biology major who wants to study genetic counseling in graduate school.
"If I saw an ambulance, I would close my eyes, even if the lights were off, because they were so scary to me," she said of her younger years. "Crazy that I chose something in the medical field, but I want to help out other people with conditions and disabilities."
She volunteers now at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul, where her treatment inspired her during several operations. During recovery from surgeries, she couldn't train, and that bothered her.
"There were times when I thought I would never be a great swimmer again," Eames said. "Swimming is as easy as walking. It's second nature to me, but swimming felt so foreign, so uncomfortable during those long stretches away from the pool."
Her parents and Franky marvel at the amount of dedication she has put in time after time to regain her form and return to swimming at an elite level again after each surgery.
"One of the things we are most proud of her for is how hard she works," Ward Eames said. "It's very difficult to be an elite athlete and it takes so much determination, dedication and drive to get there, and she has displayed that time after time."
Her Paralympic teammates agreed, as she was chosen one of four captains -- two female, two male -- for the American competitors in London.
"It's such an amazing honor," Eames said. "A dream come true."