When Norton’s Elise Morley was just 4 years old, she nearly drowned in a neighbor’s pool. Realizing the potential for disaster, her mother, Beth, insisted that the youngster take swimming lessons.
“I really hated it at first,” she said. “I didn’t want to return after the first lesson!”
Fast-forward 14 years and the 18-year-old graduate of Norton High School, who was born without a left hand, continues to flourish in the pool.
She has reached the latest pinnacle of her swimming career by being selected to the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National C team, and will represent Team USA at this month’s ParaPan American Games in Lima, Peru.
Of the 35 U.S. athletes chosen for the team, Elise, who will be swimming in the 50-meters and 100-meters freestyle, is the only woman from the Northeast to be selected (two members of the men’s team are from Connecticut).
The ParaPan American Games is an international, multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities, held every four years on the heels of the recently completed Pan American Games held in the same city.
The total budget for the games is estimated at $1.2 billion, with $470 million in sports infrastructure, $180 million building the Pan American Village, $430 million spent in organization, and $106 million for other expenses. The event will host 9,500 athletes and team officials.
“The ParaPan American Games is always a competitive atmosphere, with some of the top swimming athletes in the (Americas),” said Queenie Nichols, director for U.S. Paralympics Swimming. “It’s a huge opportunity for each athlete to travel to Peru and compete against some of the region’s best swimmers.”
The ParaPan American Games is also a potential stepping stone for these athletes to ultimately participate in the quadrennial Paralympic Games, whose 16th edition will be held following next summer’s Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo.
The long road from those beginner swimming lessons at the Pleasant Street YMCA in Attleboro to the ParaPan Games swim venue in Lima has not been without its challenges. But fortunately, Morley stuck with the lessons, and she gradually learned to enjoy the sport.
Her swim instructor encouraged her to stick with the instruction and ultimately Elise ended up on a pre-competitive team. At age 9, she joined the Attleboro Tsunami swim team and then the Bluefish Swim Team out of Attleboro, along with the Paralympic Sport Club Boston. The club is part of Adaptive Sports New England, a Massachusetts nonprofit dedicated to increasing participation in sports among New England youth and young adults with visual or mobility impairments.
Morley also became an integral part of Norton High’s swim team, although her participation at the scholastic level was limited the last couple of seasons because of her training for national and international competitions.
The competition at all levels obviously inspired a passion for the sport for Morley, but she is quick to credit teammates along the way who helped her appreciate swimming, even on the days when she may not necessarily have wanted to jump in the water.
“My teammates are the reason I want to show up,” Morley said. “They’ve been a big part of this journey, and they’ve always helped me find some inspiration to come to the pool.
“I love being part of a team where I can grow with them and watch everyone grow as people and swimmers. I’ve learned that you can be a positive influence on people without even knowing it.”
Morley won’t be coming in cold, so to speak, in terms of participating in high-profile competitions. In May 2018, she traveled to Italy to be part of the Para Swimming World Series, and qualified for Lima this past April at trials in Indianapolis.
“(Participating in those competitions) definitely helped me to relax a little more (for Peru) because I know what to expect, and I know how I have to prepare,” she said.
“At first it was very nerve-wracking. (Indianapolis) was the first trials I had been in contention where I could make a team, so I really just wanted to go in and do my best and see what I was capable of. So it definitely takes pressure off (for Peru).”
Morley has been working diligently with Bluefish swim coach Ryan Yucka in preparation for Peru. And while she has had various coaches along the way, it is Yucka with whom she primarily works to train for the national and international meets.
Preparing for Lima involves a careful regimen in order to be at peak performance. The Games’ opening ceremony will be held Aug. 23.
“We’re slowly bumping (the training) down,” she said. “One more week of heavy weights, then lay off of that, definitely cut down on my yardage.”
Morley will be flying to Houston next week to join the rest of the U.S. team and then they will fly to Lima. She’s thrilled about the prospect of reuniting with fellow teammates and competitors who she met during past meets.
“A bunch of my best friends also qualified for the team, so I’m excited to spend some time with them,” she said. “I have met so many of them through para-swimming.”
“It’s a tight-knit crew,” added her mother. “We’ve had the chance to get to know the other family members of the kids, and there’s a lot of camaraderie (among the participants and their supporters).”
Beth Morley and her mother-in-law will be joining Elise in Peru to watch her compete. Beth is aware that she probably won’t get to see much of Elise outside of the competition, given the fact that the participants will live in the Athletes’ Village, but she relishes the opportunity to support her daughter.
“(Team officials) request that you do not spend much time with them,” Beth said. “They want them to be laser-focused for the event, at the Village, but I’ll see Elise at the venue.
“I’ll be excited just to be in the stands, when Elise looks at the crowd, looking for me, and my smile.”
Doing well in Peru does not guarantee Morley a spot at next year’s Paralympics in Tokyo, since separate qualifying trials for that competition will take place next June. But she will have plenty to keep her busy between now and then.
After graduating from Norton High in May, Morley will not have to travel far to attend her college classes, given that she’s attending Wheaton College in Norton, where she’ll study biology.
She chose her hometown college, she said, in part because “everyone there is incredibly kind, and friendly, and so willing to help out in any way I need.”
Her obligations in Peru will force Morley to miss freshmen orientation and likely delay her participation with the Lyons’ swim team’s Nov.-March schedule, which she is committed to. But she is aware that training for the 2020 Paralympics trials could disrupt her training for Wheaton, although it appears that the program will support and accommodate her schedule.
“I asked the coach about (my situation),” Morley said, “and he seemed receptive about it — to try to make cuts, to trials — they’ve been really awesome. I want to balance it as much as I can.”
“We are really excited to welcome Elise to our team next month,” Barrett Roberts, Wheaton’s swim coach, said via email. “She is obviously a very driven student-athlete, which played a large role in our interest level during the recruiting process.
“The fact that she has worked her way to the international level is impressive in itself, but when you combine that with her thoughtfulness and her desire to join a supportive team and campus environment ... that’s really when our mutual interests aligned.”
“Our coaches will have individual meetings with all of our swimmers to map out their training plan for the season,” Roberts continued. “I know Elise has some big goals every year, but especially going into an Olympic year.
“Although our training philosophy won’t change given our program’s recent success, we are definitely open to adjusting things where we can to ensure that Elise is being put in the best position possible to achieve her personal goals, in addition to our team goals. The coach/athlete relationship here is more of a partnership than anything else, so I’m looking forward to sitting down with Elise so we can work together as we pursue those goals.
“We have a few others with potential opportunities to compete at the US Olympic trials, so it will be my job to figure out the best ways to keep each of them motivated, without adding undue pressure. As long as Elise and her teammates keep their focus on working hard, staying positive, and taking care of each other, good things will happen in the pool!”
Morley admits that “(college) is definitely a big challenge; it’s nothing really new that I had to deal with before, just a larger scale,” Elise said. “I’m excited to see how I can balance my schedule, and get ready for trials next year.”