Working out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., swimmer Becca Meyers found herself lifting weights beside Michael Phelps. He stands 6 feet 4; she is 5-3. Phelps took note of her size and began some good-natured ribbing.
“He started picking on me, making fun of how short I am,” said Meyers, 20, of Timonium. Her comeback?
I stepped up to the bar and did 12 straight pullups,” she said of their encounter two weeks ago. “That shut him up.”
All her life, Meyers has battled her physical wants with a tireless work ethic and a can-do mantra. Born with Usher syndrome, a rare disorder that left her deaf and going blind, she has blossomed into an elite para-swimmer.
Last year, Meyers set two world records (200-meter individual medley, 400-meter freestyle) and won four gold medals at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships to earn a nomination for the 2015 ESPY award as Best Female Athlete with a Disability. ESPY winners, who are chosen by the public, will be announced tonight on ABC.
“That nomination came out of the blue. I woke up to an email [from ESPN] last week and said, ‘Is this for real?'” Meyers said. She'll watch the outcome from Glasgow, Scotland, where she's competing in the International Paralympic Committee World Championships through Sunday.
On Tuesday, she broke her world record in her category in the women's 200-meter IM, finishing in 2 minutes, 24.60 seconds and shaving just over two seconds off her 2014 mark of 2:26.86.
“It feels incredible to be able to break my own record because it shows that I'm improving,” Meyers said. “I still have things to work on, but I am getting faster and that's a good feeling to have going into this next year with the [Paralympic] Games.”
The IPC worlds are the biggest meet before the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Meyers hopes to build on her 2012 medal showing (one silver, one bronze).
“She's determined, upbeat and all you could want in a swimmer,” her coach, Erik Posegay, said. “In the pool she can't hear, lacks peripheral vision and sometimes loses her balance in choppy water. Becca has suffered concussions in practice while hitting other swimmers head-on. But she hasn't let it hinder her. She takes her disability and uses it as motivation; her mindset is, ‘All of that is going on, yet I can still do this.' ”
Posegay, who has coached Meyers for three years at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, said her talents are such that she'd rank in the top 10 to 15 percent of all competitive swimmers.
“Her times drop every year,” Posegay said. “If Becca chose to swim another five years, she could probably make the able-bodied Olympic Trials” in 2020.
Already, Meyers has a tattoo of the five Olympic rings, in color, on her back. And while the pool is her springboard to success, it is also a haven for a woman whose goal is simply to be like everyone else.
“The water is the one place where I can go and be free,” she said. “While training, I fit in perfectly. I'm not singled out, and everything is OK. I can forget my disabilities and, for once, feel normal.”
Profoundly deaf at birth, she wears cochlear implants, electronic devices that allow her to hear on land but not in the pool. And while her eyesight is failing, Meyers can still see objects straight ahead, though little else.
“It's like looking at life through two straws,” she said.
Meyers also struggles with loss of balance, yet another aspect of Usher syndrome.
“I wobble a bit and keep my feet spread apart to be stable,” she said. “Climbing steps, I have to hold on to something.”
Twice, during swim workouts, she has butted heads with teammates. The first time, at Notre Dame Prep, sidelined Meyers for three months with torn ligaments in her neck. Don't ask how often she has rammed the wall of a pool.
On land, she uses a cane. Last winter, while attending Franklin & Marshall, she suffered a concussion after walking into a pole while leaving a night class on campus. She missed three days of school.
“That was the last straw,” said Meyers, who vowed to get a guide dog. Later this month, she'll select one at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J. She has already ordered the dog's collar, which will have — no surprise — those interlocking Olympic rings.
“Everyone faces challenges, but Becca has always been one to make lemonade out of lemons,” her mother, Maria Meyers, said. “She's driven to do things a million miles an hour. She didn't walk until she was 18 months old, and then she fell down a lot. But from the second she could walk, she was gone.”
Early on, Meyers learned to ski down rigorous black diamond slopes in Western Maryland as others watched.
“They'd ask, ‘How old is he?'” Maria Meyers said. “I'd say, ‘She's 5.' ”
At 6, she insisted on strapping on water skis and skimming across Deep Creek Lake.
“I was scared to death,” her mother said. “But she was determined and I couldn't hold her back.”
That year, at summer camp, Meyers took part in a mile run with her two older siblings at Ridgely Middle School in Towson. It wasn't easy for a girl with limited sight and an unsteady gait, said her father, Mark Meyers.
“She was determined not to quit — and when she finished, she threw up,” he said.
Recalling the incident, Meyers shrugged it off.
“I just wanted to be with my brother and sister,” she said. “Just because I was deaf and going blind doesn't mean I was disabled.”
While swimming has brought Meyers celebrity, it hasn't gone to her head. Her view of the future is clear, those who know her say.
“She doesn't act uppity just because she has broken world records. She just buckles down to break them again,” said Ana Bogdanovski, 21, a teammate at NBAC. “She's a pocket-sized ball of muscle who finds ways to make things work for her.”
A 2015 graduate of Johns Hopkins, where she was a 10-time NCAA champion, Bogdanovski said Meyers “has taught me to be tough, mentally and physically. She's my shoulder to lean on but she'll also tell me to stop complaining. She has toughed it out in a lot worse situations than me.”
Meyers calls her disabilities “a kind of blessing in disguise. Swimming has allowed me to see the world and meet people like President Obama, who shook my hand, and Prince Harry [of Britain], with whom I had a two-minute conversation. I tried to get a picture with him but couldn't. Bummer.”
Moreover, she said, “I feel I'm a role model for disabled kids and can change their lives. Last year, I worked at a summer camp in Pennsylvania with a boy who was deaf and blind and who'd lost confidence in his swimming. When I left, he said, ‘Thanks for coming' and that he'd fallen in love with the sport again.”
In March, at a swim meet in Canada, Meyers took one of the gold medals she'd won and placed it around the neck of a disabled 11-year-old girl, saying, “Someday I see you getting one of your own.” They're now pen pals.
Though her vision is failing, shrinking from the outside in, Meyers is confident science will triumph.
“I believe in technology,” she said. “If there are implants to help us hear, I'm sure there will be contact lenses to help us see.”
She'll always be 5 feet 3.
“Becca's height doesn't matter. It's the size of one's heart, and hers is enormous,” said Posegay, her coach. “There are a lot of Amazons out there who are blessed with size but who can't do a thing in the pool because they don't have what she has on the inside.”
The ESPYS will be televised at 8 p.m. July 15, on ABC. Votes can be cast at espn.go.com/espys/2015/?voting. Click on the black bar "Click for More Categories" to reach the Best Female Athlete with a Disability category.