Brittany Conrad heads to national swimming championships after losing leg

ZIONSVILLE – There’s something about water, an equalizer, Brittany Conrad calls it. Something about the strength of the shoulders it takes to swim. The power of the blow. The perfect start. Success measured by laps and seconds.

There’s something in the water that doesn’t matter so much about the accident that took her left leg years ago.

Brittany is inside Zionsville High School, standing by the pool. She removes the blade and the knee from her left leg. She puts on her swimming cap and jumps on her right leg to the brim.

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In the water, Brittany swims at speeds unmatched by many children her age, speeds that are a second slower than the Paralympians now swim to qualify in Tokyo. Brittany is 11 years old.

And at 11, it is sometimes difficult to integrate. At 11, confidence can be hard to come by. The swimming pool gives Brittany all this, a competitive spirit, a sporting dynamism, a way of proving oneself. And she gets noticed by those who know her sport the best.

In Oklahoma last week, at a swimming competition, coaches from across the United States visited her mother, Jen Conrad. “Hey, she has to be on the national tour,” they said. “Prepare her for when she can qualify for the Paralympic Games. ”

Because, they said, the Paralympics seem to be exactly where Brittany is heading.

It just looks wonderful for Brittany. When she’s in the water, it’s like freedom. She is fighting to be successful. Just like she fought for her life not so long ago.

‘Were happy. She is happy’

She was four years old when the accident occurred. The rule at the Conrad house was that “the kids stay inside while daddy is outside mowing.” Brittany is the middle child of three daughters of David and Jen Conrad.

The girls had been fired twice that day, Jen said, when Brittany, a curious and bubbly youngster, slipped through the back door for the third time.

Her father has not seen her.

“I remember being under the lawn mower, but everything else…” Brittany says, she doesn’t remember.

Jen Conrad does it. Inside the Riley Hospital for Children, the prognosis was grim. Brittany had contracted a fungal infection with an 80% death rate. Losing a limb was the least of the family’s worries.

Brittany Conrad adjusts her goggles as she prepares for a swim in the pool at the Zionsville Aquatic Center on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Zionsville.  Conrad is preparing for his first junior national championships.

“I’m saying our story is like a Lifetime type movie,” Jen said, “where it’s like the worst day ever, then another worst day ever.”

And then … the water laps and Brittany swims. She comes out with a smile on her face.

It’s hard to be turned upside down by their lives now, Jen said on Monday. “Honestly, life is good. Are there tough challenges? Obviously,” she said. “But we’re happy. She’s happy.”

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“Every coach’s dream”

Just before the Tokyo Olympics, Brittany will swim at the Move United Junior Nationals in Colorado next month.

The National Junior Championships have been around since 1984 and are the oldest and largest competitive sporting event held on a permanent basis for athletes aged 6 to 22 with physical disabilities. Many athletes will participate in the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Next month will be Brittany’s first appearance at the National Junior Championships.

“They are actually fast swimmers; you have to qualify for that,” she said. “And I’m very excited and hope to have set some national time records.”

Brittany Conrad prepares to enter the pool as her mother Jen Conrad watches on Monday, June 21, 2021 in Zionsville.

Brittany being part of the national competition is not a surprise for Don Cozad. He was impressed with Brittany as a coach at the Zionsville Swim Club, which he calls a privilege.

“Brit has been an incredible athlete,” he said. “She amazes me every day with her work ethic, her love of the sport and her courage to overcome challenges.”

Brittany trains five days a week. Her hard work and dedication to improving makes her “every coach’s dream,” Cozad said.

After the accident, Brittany tried out other sports: softball and running. But swimming is the sport that attracted her.

“I really enjoyed it because it’s like level playing field when you’re in the water,” she said. “And so I kind of got attached to that.”

‘Warning. She’s a fighter ‘

Brittany is an above-knee amputee and the greatest risk for anyone who has lost a lower limb is falling, her mother said.

She wears a computerized knee that senses when her gait pattern changes, then locks in place as needed to prevent a fall.

“From a parent’s perspective, amputee prosthetics, the technology, where it’s going,” Jen said. “Sky is the limit.”

Brittany is easy going, this personality mediating the middle child. But when she’s in the pool, “be careful,” Jen said, “she’s a fighter.”

Brittany Conrad, 11, gets out of the pool after swimming lengths on Monday, June 21, 2021, at the Zionsville Aquatic Center.  Conrad lost his leg in a lawn mowing accident, but she didn't let him stop his passion for swimming.  She is preparing for her first junior national championships.

“When people see her jumping into the pool without her leg, they’re like,” they’re wondering what’s going to happen, Jen said. “And then when they see her swimming and they’re like ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter if she’s missing a leg or not.'”

Brittany’s favorite move is the freestyle. It is in the free and the back that Brittany now competes with the times of the Paralympians.

“She’s just a natural competitor,” Jen said. “She’s happy when she’s in the water.”

People across the country have seen the history of Brittany. Parents asked if Brittany could talk to their child, facing a new battle as an amputee.

Brittany has words of wisdom for anyone who has lost a limb.

“The world is not over,” she said, “and there is always an equal chance for you to do amazing things.”

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Contact her by e-mail: [email protected].

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