When his swimming coach confronted him last year after seeing the way he got out of the pool and climbed into a car, Jamal Hill had to share a part of his life that for a long time was a mystery even to him: he has Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), a disease that affects the peripheral nerves. For Hill, that means it’s difficult to use the muscles in his lower legs and forearms.
“That explains everything,” Hill’s coach, Wilma Wong, said.
Hill, 24, is now on Team USA, part of the U.S. Paralympics swimming team, and he competed in the World Para Swimming World Series April 4-6 at the IU Natatorium on IUPUI’s campus.
For most of his life, Hill, who lives with his parents in Los Angeles, has competed alongside able-bodied swimmers and held his own. He was good enough to go to Hiram College, a Division III school in Ohio where he swam for three years. Hill left as a junior to join the Trojan Swim Club at the University of Southern California, where swimmers go to advance their careers. He joined Wong, his current coach, in 2017.
For much of his life, Hill knew something wasn’t right with his body. He was sick with the flu when he was 10 and his body basically shut down. He was paralyzed from the neck down for a few days and spent a couple of weeks in the hospital. Hill’s parents knew he had CMT but didn’t tell him until he was 23. They said they didn’t want their son to learn he had this condition and make it an excuse.
“Every time he would tell me, ‘Mom, my leg doesn’t do this,’ I would say, ‘Just keep working on it,’” Hill’s mother, Sandra Hill, said. “’It’ll do it. You have to train it. You have to keep working harder, and that’ll do it.’”
That meant Wong didn’t know this swimmer she was coaching had CMT. She noticed things that were a little strange while they were together, like how he pulled his legs out of the pool, and she said he didn’t progress the same as other swimmers.
“It’s not simply about correcting your technique if you know what the technique is,” Wong said. “And if the swimmer’s not able to do it, it’s not necessarily their fault because something in the body is stopping them from doing it.”
Since joining Team USA, doctors occasionally have to test Hill’s muscle response using electric shocks. He said his forearms rate about 34 out of 100 — a small twitch — and his lower legs don’t even register. It’s an intrusive process, with needles and electrocution, which is part of why Hill said he’s thankful his parents waited to tell him he had CMT.
Hill’s best race is the 50-meter freestyle because that stroke works best with the way his other muscles — especially the ones in his back — have formed to compensate for his lower legs and forearms. An Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long, so Hill doesn’t have to push off the wall to go back, something he struggles with because of CMT.
Even when does have to go longer than 50 meters, though, Hill is fast in the pool. At an event in Arizona in December, Hill was part of a 4x100 relay team and started his lap about 10 seconds after the swimmer in the lane to his left. In most cases, it’s a foregone conclusion that, while a swimmer in Hill’s position may be able to make up some ground over the course of 100 meters, he won’t catch up. But Hill did catch up, just barely touching the wall before his competitor and positioning the next swimmer in the relay out in front.
It’s a reminder that Hill is a world-class athlete, competing alongside some of the best swimmers in the United States and across the globe.
“It’s amazing,” Hill said. “I’m competing with athletes on my level, and it’s a good feeling.”
At the end of April, Hill will go to Scotland for the fourth of seven stops on the 2019 World Series tour. That will be a chance to get back on track. In Indianapolis, Hill was disqualified from the 100-meter backstroke for taking an extra stroke on his flip turn. He was also disqualified from the 50-meter freestyle after confusion over the schedule led to him missing the check-in time for the finals. Hill did get second in the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 59.7 seconds.
For now, Hill is moving forward in his career without the luxury of big sponsorships and payouts, since he just joined Team USA in August 2018. Along with giving swim lessons, Hill gets some steady money from his part-time job at a gym in Los Angeles.
Hill also has a goal to teach 1 million people how to swim. Because he can’t actually get in the pool with that many people, Hill has a strong social media presence on Instagram — with 9,400 followers — where he promotes himself and his mission.
It’s a challenge, but this is life for any athlete competing at the highest level. Just to add one more to the list, Hill’s physical impairment was reclassified in Indianapolis from S9 to S10, which the International Paralympic Committee describes as “minimal physical impairments of eligible swimmers.” That means Hill now competes against even better swimmers, and qualifying time standards are more difficult.
“It was a little discouraging to me,” he said, “but you already can see I’ve been doing all this with no one knowing. I’m used to the struggle. I’m used to getting s--- done.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.