Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016 | 2 a.m.
No matter how hard Cortney Jordan pushed, she finished last at swim meets.
“I remember the first times I saw her, I was crying,” her sister, Mikaela Jordan, said. “It was so hard to watch, because she just couldn’t get her left arm out of the water.”
Cortney Jordan was born with cerebral palsy, leaving her nearly paralyzed across the left side of her body and severely disadvantaged against able-bodied swimmers.
But Jordan trailblazed her way to a new family milestone, which says something considering her grandfather, Jarrett Jordan, co-founded the Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida: She represented the United States at the highest level of international competition.
The 25-year-old Coronado High School graduate is one of the most decorated Paralympic swimmers of all time, having won 44 medals. And she’s looking to add more at this year’s Paralympic Games. She’ll compete in six events at her third and possibly final Paralympics, which starts Sept. 7 in Rio de Janeiro.
“You watch your flag rise at the medal ceremony and realize you made that happen,” she said. “To represent your country and your family, it’s something bigger that’s very difficult to put into words.”
It’s a far cry from where Jordan pictured herself growing up. She took up swimming as a means of physical therapy, and her family encouraged her to focus on her own times when she started competing.
In 2005, Jordan registered for a local meet and checked a box that said “disabled.” That led to an invite to a meet in San Diego. She dominated.
“It was so surprising, because I had never won anything in athletics,” Jordan said. “I was more worried about my trigonometry class.”
Her first taste of international success came in South Africa, where the then-Coronado sophomore won three bronze medals.
“I went from always being last to being second or third in the world, basically overnight,” she said. “It was the first time where I felt, ‘Wow, this could be something,’ and I wanted to feel that again.”
Jordan started training six days a week with Coronado’s swim team and on her own. She qualified for six events in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and won her first gold medal. Jordan’s success led to a full scholarship to California Lutheran University, where she studied education.
“My parents taught me to treat school as a priority and swimming as a hobby,” Jordan said, “because my body is eventually going to break down, and I needed an education and something else to live off of.”
In the summer of her junior year in college, Jordan added three silver medals and a bronze in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She fell short of gold but set personal-best times across the board. And she graduated magna cum laude from California Lutheran the next year, earning a scholarship to pursue a master’s in elementary education at Loyola University Maryland.
Brian Loeffler, her U.S. Paralympic coach, is the swimming coach at Loyola and recruited her to the school.
“Cortney caught my attention with her work to really minimize the impact of her disability,” Loeffler said. “She has done a great job to be the best she can be.”
Although Jordan had exhausted her collegiate eligibility, she continued to train four hours a day, six days a week with the Loyola swim team while balancing classes and a student-teaching job.
The dedication spurred her to new heights in the pool. Jordan won a career-best three gold medals in the 2013 IPC World Championships in Montreal, took three more golds at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para-Swimming championships in Pasadena, Calif., and six medals at last year’s World Championships in Glasgow.
Jordan is a favorite to add more gold to her collection in Rio. But she’s focused on her times, not where she’ll stand on the podium.
Above all, she’s at peace with fulfilling her two greatest dreams, Paralympic swimming and elementary teaching. After the games, Jordan will take a break from the sport to return to her first full-time job, teaching math and science to fourth-graders.
She’ll need time to decide her swimming future. For now, Jordan is content doing what she loves and hopes her message of never settling resonates with those who may see her as a role model.
“My story,” she said, “can show people no matter what their circumstances, if you give 100 percent and love what you’re doing, you’re going to be successful.”