University of Lynchburg swimmer Mei White ’26 will compete in the 2023 Parapan American Games, held Nov. 17-26 in Santiago, Chile. The exercise physiology major and transfer student from Athens, Georgia, will compete in the 100-meter breaststroke, 400-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley, and the 100-meter backstroke.
Held every four years, the Parapan American Games attract 2,000 athletes in 17 sports from more than 30 countries. It’s White’s second time at the games, having won gold in the SB8 100-meter breaststroke and silver in the S9 400-meter freestyle at the 2019 event in Lima, Peru.
SB8 and S9 are competition categories for para athletes, which the International Paralympic Committee defines as “a general term for pro and amateur athletes with disabilities.” In White’s case, her right leg was amputated above the knee due to proximal femoral focal deficiency, a birth defect in which the upper thigh bone is missing or malformed.
White, the U.S. record holder in the SB8 50- and 100-yard breaststroke, started swimming competitively at age 6. It was in part for physical therapy and partly because, as White puts it, she was a “ball of energy” who wouldn’t listen to her physical therapists.
“My mom will tell you I was a fireball, the rule breaker of the family, always constantly doing stuff,” she said. “It was a way to channel the chaotic energy into one thing. I’m also ADHD, so I have to have a physical activity to keep myself in check. So, I got better at that.”
White also got better at swimming — much better. She said one of her coaches, renowned adaptive swim coach Fred Lamback, told her mom, “I see some real potential with your daughter. If she works really hard and enjoys it, she can go far.”
And far she went. While training with the Athens Bulldog Swim Club, White competed at meets in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Singapore. From January to June of 2021, she trained at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
From there, she went to Tokyo, where she swam for Team USA at the COVID-19-delayed 2020 Summer Paralympics. She placed fifth in Heat 1 of the SB8 100-meter breaststroke, with the 11th fastest time overall.
While “pretty bummed” about not making the finals, she said, “I’m proud that I went.”
After graduating from high school, White swam for a small college in her home state of Georgia before transferring to Lynchburg for the Fall 2023 semester. She considered several Virginia colleges before choosing Lynchburg — a decision that largely had to do with head swimming coach Brad Dunn.
White described “Coach Brad” as “super welcoming to everyone” and said that, in her experience, “not a lot of collegiate coaches are open to coaching someone with a disability.”
On the contrary, she said, Dunn “was like, ‘We want you, come in, we want you,’” and when she called him a couple of days after visiting Lynchburg, the first thing he said was, “Is this the call that I’m hoping for?”
At Lynchburg, White swims against what she describes as “able-bodied” athletes, meaning she might break the U.S. SB8 record in the 100-yard breaststroke — like she did on Oct. 21 in a meet against Mary Washington University — but still finish at the back of the pack.
Asked about what White brings to the team, Dunn said, “Her energy is infectious. … She is willing to try new events. She wants to do what she can to help the team score points. What she brings the most value to is her love of the sport.
“You need those people on your team, regardless of how fast they are. That is what makes my job as a coach enjoyable. She works extremely hard. She’s a beast in the weight room. Whenever she gets up to race, she competes. That’s the culture we want here at Lynchburg.”
Looking beyond the 2023-24 collegiate swimming season, White has already qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, to be held June 27-29, 2024, in Minneapolis. Beyond that, her eyes are set on the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
“I would love to go,” she said. “I’m going to train for it and my goal is to go to the Paralympic Games. We’ll see how it goes.”