A Year After Returning To The Track, Now As A Para Sprinter, Taylor Swanson Is Headed To Santiago
by Stephen Kerr
Taylor Swanson’s journey as a track and field athlete hasn’t gone exactly the way she envisioned.
A knee injury almost a decade ago seemed to put an end to her days as a sprinter. Up until last year, Swanson had no plans to compete as a Para athlete.
The change of plans has paid off, though, as the 30-year-old T37 sprinter earned a spot on the U.S. track and field roster for the Parapan American Games, which will take place Nov. 17-26 in Santiago, Chile.
“To find out that I made it and (getting) that email was awesome,” the Seattle native said. “That was an ‘oh wow’ moment.”
Born in South Korea, Swanson was adopted at six months old by Brian Swanson and Stacy Walker and taken to the United States. At age 2, she was diagnosed with a phonological process disorder, a condition that occurs when a child struggles with speech sound patterns. She exhibited signs of cerebral palsy growing up, but it wasn’t until this past June that doctors discovered she had hemiplegia, a type of unilateral cerebral palsy.
“Because I was adopted, we didn’t know a lot about my medical (history),” Swanson said. “I had all the signs (of cerebral palsy) even when I got here. But (doctors) all put it as separate things. They didn’t connect the dots until recently.”
Swanson led a relatively normal life growing up with her adoptive parents and younger sister, Zoe. Her biggest struggles came in school, where she didn’t get the help she needed.
Sports became an escape from Swanson’s academic struggles. She started playing soccer in first grade and joined the track team at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School midway through her freshman year.
Track wasn’t initially her sport of choice, however.
“I had friends and family force me into doing track,” Swanson said. “After the first practice, I fell in love with it.”
Swanson turned that love into impressive results throughout high school. She competed in the AAU Junior Olympics her junior year, then qualified for the state meet as a senior.
After she graduated high school, Swanson attended Arizona State University. During her time in college, she continued to compete as a sprinter for the Seattle Speed Track Club.
However, in 2014, she tore the meniscus in her right knee. Complications arose during her initial knee surgery, and two more surgeries followed. She also underwent extensive physical therapy with little to no improvement.
“There were a lot of things I just couldn’t do,” Swanson said. “I did PT for eight or nine years, and I got to the point where nothing was getting better or worse, but it was also not improving at all.”
The urge to run still lingered. Last year, following the advice of her physical therapist, Swanson began training as a Para sprinter. In 2022, she entered the Pine Cone Track & Field Classic, an annual event hosted by ParaSport Spokane. She competed as a provisional T44 classification for having foot drop.
To her surprise, Swanson finished first in the women’s 100-meter with a time of 13:35.
“I think it was my first race in eight years, so I had no expectations,” Swanson said with a laugh.
Swanson’s most recent action came in September at the Prefontaine Classic, a premier event held at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. Her time of 13.15 in the women’s Para 100 — which combined multiple classifications into one event — was good enough for fourth place.
Following her diagnosis of cerebral palsy in June, she was reclassified as a T37 athlete.
The Pre Classic was her first real taste of Para competition featuring track athletes from around the world.
“It was great meeting all these Para athletes because I’m new to this,” Swanson said. “Just learning how things are run was super interesting.”
Parapans will be the first time Swanson travels internationally for a meet, but she’s not unfamiliar with going abroad.
Since coming to the United States from South Korea, Swanson has retained citizenship in both countries. In 2016, she spent a month in the country of her birth. Having no recollection of her time there as an infant, it was an eye-opening experience for her.
“It was like culture shock,” she said. “I think the funniest thing was people thinking that I could speak Korean, which I don’t know much at all. The good thing was my mom knew someone there who knows English, so I stayed with her. That helped, rather than being on my own in a foreign country and not speaking the language.”
Swanson is set to compete in the 100 and 200 at the Parapan Games. Making the podium would go a long way toward earning a spot on the roster for the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. To try and reach that goal, she’s focusing on training smarter and improving her quickness out of the starting block.
“I think my weakest part is at the start of the race,” she said. “My reaction time is all over the place. Sometimes I have really good ones, sometimes really bad ones. I’m trying to be more consistent on that side.”
Stephen Kerr is a freelance journalist and newsletter publisher based in Austin, Texas. He is a contributor to usparatf.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter @smkwriter1.