Nina Nissly is a state champion.
That is something the Lake Forest swimmer never thought she would be able to call herself.
But it became a reality on Saturday at the IHSA state finals at Evanston. Illinois became the first state to allow disabled swimmers to compete at the state finals. A senior who has cerebral palsy, Nissly won the first race, the 200-yard freestyle.
“It’s fantastic,” said Nissly, who beat three other swimmers to win in 2:49.28. “The coolest part about it was when I finished, everyone was cheering and I looked up at the board and I [saw that] I dropped time. I just couldn’t stop smiling.”
Nissly, who has been swimming since she was 8, was one of seven disabled athletes who competed in the historic meet. The four disabled events were run just prior to the same races for able-bodied swimmers.
Nissly, who also won the 50 free, 100 free and 100 breaststroke, wasn’t worried about her times.
“I just wanted to get out there and compete and swim,” said Nissly, who has been accepted at Wisconsin-Whitewater and hopes to study graphic design. “If I dropped time that would be great. I never thought within my high school career that it would happen, but I was hopeful that one day it would.”
It also happened because of a legal assist from Fenwick senior Mary Kate Callahan. She sued to force the IHSA to offer opportunities to disabled swimmers. The two sides quickly reached a settlement and Callahan realized her dream, swimming all four events.
“It’s something that’s really close to my heart,” said Callahan, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since birth. “I’ve been swimming since I was six years old. I joined the swim team freshman year and I really wanted to be a part of that whole picture, the high school experience.
“I wanted to be just like all the other swimmers, so to be on my swim team is one thing, but then to be swimming with all the elite disabled swimmers along with the elite able-bodied swimmers is really something neat. It’s something that I think a lot of these other disabled swimmers never thought was an option, but I wanted to open the doors to other people.”
That she did so will be Callahan’s legacy and an inspiration to disabled athletes in future years.
“There are a lot of athletes disabled in many different ways that you wouldn’t even know,” Lake Forest coach Carolyn Grevers said. “But this is an opportunity for recognition and for those kids not only to get recognized in the water but to be recognized for pushing past those disabilities and really conquer what they’ve got. This is a really good thing for all sports, hopefully.”
During her push to create this opportunity, Callahan became known for her steely resolve, but when it came time for her to make her debut in the water before the appreciative crowd, her façade cracked a bit.
“The able-bodied swimmers, they look at us as athletes, but when I was behind the blocks I was crying because it was kind of overwhelming that I was actually here,” Callahan said.
“I was really excited. Being a senior, I’m really glad that I was able to experience it, but I’m really happy that these other kids are going to have this same opportunity and they’re not going to have to fight for it.”
The other Chicago-area competitors were Waubonsie Valley junior Alyssa Gialamas, Glenbrook North junior Phoebe Mejia and Oak Lawn senior Samantha Smolka.