Harvard’s David Abrahams overcomes vision loss to thrive as Para swimmer

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Sports

Abrahams, a math major at Harvard, turned a years-long battle with Stargardt disease into a record-breaking career as a para-swimmer.

David Abrahams. Gail Farris

David Abrahams would be pretty impressive if everything he became one of the most decorated swimmers in the world while studying ‘pure’ math – the kind of math that works more with proofs and mathematical concepts than just numbers – at the University of Harvard.

He does this while legally blind.

This revelation began to appear on Abrahams, a 20-year-old junior at Harvard, as he stared at the board as a middle school student in Havertown, Penn., and simply saw “nothing.” Soon after, he and his parents learned that he had Stargardt disease, which causes progressive vision loss.

“There’s just a big, old blind spot in the center of my eye,” he told Boston.com. “So wherever I look, it just follows with that. … You’re just looking at something that’s absent.

Imagine opening your eyes, knowing that something or someone is right in front of your face, and you just can’t see it. The everyday things we take for granted, like reading or recognizing an animal, are struggles for Abrahams.

But even being legally blind couldn’t stop him from becoming a rising star in the swimming world.

Abrahams said he had been swimming since he was about three years old and was active in the local swim club scene while coming to school. By the time his vision started to fade in middle school, he said he had developed enough muscle memory to maintain his technique with all of his punches. But he still had to make some adjustments.

“I had to work with some of my coaches in high school to learn not to slow down because I was rightly a little scared of crashing into the wall,” Abrahams said. “So I had to work on developing techniques like counting my shots to know exactly where I was at any given time, or using my peripheral vision – outside the blind spot – to see markers and walls at next to me to know exactly where I was.

Abrahams said he began to feel he could have a longer swimming career during his freshman year of high school – long after he began losing his sight. But he didn’t know he would be eligible to compete as a Para swimmer until about two years ago.

“A family friend of ours had swum for a coach at a local college who happened to be one of the coaches for the US Paralympic team,” he recalled. “He reached out to my family and we like, ‘This is an option for you.’

“Within about six months of hearing about it, I was competing in some of the highest level competitions in the business.”

David Abraham. Courtesy of Clearcover

In the past year alone, Abrahams has set six national Para-swimming records and he won a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke – his favorite medley – at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021.

The Harvard swimmer is also one of the latest waves of college athletes to sign a “name-image-likeness” or NIL sponsorship, which allows them to cash in on their careers while still in college. Abrahams announced a partnership with Clearcoveran insurance company that began branching out into athletics in March.

Kyle Nakatsuji, co-founder and CEO of Clearcover, was an DI college football player at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and said Abraham’s story of resilience spoke to him.

“He’s someone who had two months to deal with a set of circumstances that life gave him and did it with a positive attitude, who found ways to keep doing what he loved. “said Nakatsuji, calling Clearcover’s decision to sponsor Abraham “an obvious choice.

“The work he’s done in the pool and at school, those are all things we set up this program for: being able to say, ‘You might not be in the news, but you also deserves recognition.'”

For Abrahams, who studies math at Harvard, the partnership with Clearcover is “life changing.”

“It means it means the world to me,” he said. “You look at hard-working college athletes who also have to balance very rigorous academic work. Many people balance jobs on top of that. So that certainly helps tremendously.

But his income from the NIL deal is only part of the message he wants this partnership to send: “My goal is to inspire as many people who are in difficult situations, who have been treated with challenging enough, to inspire them to achieve the highest level of achievement possible.

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