“I didn’t have a goal to go to the Olympics, it was one of those things that I just rode the wave and took those opportunities as they came,” she said.
Mandy Sommer is a 37-year-old massage therapist from Omaha who works with the University of Nebraska Omaha swimming and diving team. Sommer is a former swimmer herself and competed for UNO for three and a half years after being an elite swimmer for the United States. Sommer attended two Worlds competitions and two Olympics in her career. But even though her achievements are
extensive, she said she does not want to be defined by her Olympic experiences, or by the fact that she is blind.
Sommer was born with congenital glaucoma. By the time she was 12, her retinas had detached and she was forced to have her eyes removed. The eyes she now has are glass.
When Sommer was in junior high she was encouraged by a teacher to pursue an extracurricular activity so that she would have a better chance of getting into college. She said that she knew at this point in her life that it would take more than just straight A’s to get into a school she wanted. It was also important to her to not be a “typical blind person,” she wanted an education and a degree. After trying many sports like gymnastics, track and cross country her talents in swimming made it the obvious choice for her.
“Swimming was just my thing,” she said.
It was through swimming and her excellent grade point average that Sommer received a full ride to Creighton University. Because of this, she gave up swimming for a year to immerse herself in her studies.
But college was different for Sommer than most college students. She said how the student body, “was not happy with a blind person.” She dealt with a harsh environment and relentless bullying. She said how she would have students do things such as push the wrong button on the elevator for her and because she had not yet accepted her blindness herself, this treatment by her fellow students made her unable to continue at Creighton and set her back in her effort to earn a degree and accept herself and her condition.
Shortly after leaving Creighton she attended Metro College and after working hard on her grade point average she was able to later transfer to UNO and continue her career in collegiate and elite swimming.
Because her family did not understand what it was like to be a competitive swimmer they were relatively indifferent about her sport. Though her family traveled with her quite often she didn’t always feel very supported at home. She said that it was her team and friends that provided the most support of her and her sport.
“My family tolerated it,” she said.
Sommer is able to swim by dragging her fingers along the lane line during her race. She does this because with the addition of swimmers in the surrounding lanes, the wake they create can be extremely disorienting.
“I still have scars on my fingers from doing it,” she says.
She would also count strokes, she said, “But that wouldn’t always work either. I broke my nose counting strokes, I got many a concussion counting strokes,” she says.
It was through all of her hardships trying to cope with her condition that made her the unstoppable swimmer she had become. When Sommer was swimming she was a multiple event swimmer. Her preference was the backstroke. Her races in the 200 and 50-meter backstroke is what got her two national records during her career. She said she enjoys a balance between sprinting and distance. She only had to swim the mile once and disliked the 100-meter backstroke because she felt it was too “fast and furious.” It was this race that she missed the national record by one one-hundredth of a second.
“I was like ‘are you kidding me!’ If I had not blinked an eye I would have gotten that,” Sommer said.
She explained this experience to show how swimming can really come down to a fraction of a second between first and second place and that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on an athlete.
This summer of 2016 the US Olympic Swimming Trials will be held in Omaha. Comparing the trials to the actual Olympics, Sommer said that there was no intensity and pressure quite like an international meet.
“Trials is almost like playing, it almost sounds crazy but it is like a practice meet. When you go international there is so much more involved,” she said.
The 1996 Olympics were in Atlanta, Georgia. For many athletes, including Sommer, it was different than any other meet she had ever experienced. She says that lot of paper work goes into preparation for the Olympics. Athletes competing for the United States of America are told what to where, when to sleep and what to eat. They are also restricted in being able to talk to an athlete from another team. The USA is just held to a higher standard, she said.
“I didn’t do well in Atlanta, to this day I do not like Atlanta, Georgia because I was pushed so hard and I was only 16. So, I was really young and didn’t know how to deal with it…Sydney Olympics I had a blast,” she said.
The next Olympic Games occurred in 2000 in Sydney. Because of the events of 1996, Sommer said that she decided previous to the event not to not let the pressure of competition affect her this time around. She was there to swim her best and enjoy herself.
It was in these Olympics that the American athletes like Sommer felt the effects of the terrorist attack in the United States on the USS Cole. With the increased security on the American athletes Sommer said she and her teammates were not told about the attack that has occurred back at home.
“We were not there to worry about anything else other than what we were doing, and that was swimming for the United States,” she said.
Sommer along with her teammates learned about the attack when one of her teammates talked to their parents over the phone.
Despite the pressure of competition and the stress of what was going on back home, Sommer found time to take what she said was an adventure of a lifetime. The last week the United States team was in Sydney, Sommer left Olympic village with the security guards she had befriended and spent the week camping out on a beach. She said that this was her most memorable Olympic experience because she was able to see Australia in a way that most tourists never get to.
Following her second Olympics, she returned to UNO to continue her collegiate career. Sommer said this is where she was able to be rid of the intensity of international competition and focus on simply enjoying the sport. This is also the team where she felt the most included and at ease.
“I didn’t have to kill myself to be accepted on the team,” she said.
However, in her final year at UNO, her swimming career came to an abrupt end. Sommer shattered her ankle during training. For the first time, she said she had to imagine her life and who she was without swimming.
“I went from being a blind swimmer to just a blind girl I didn’t want to be around water, or I couldn’t for a very very long time. Because when you shatter your ankle four weeks before trials everything you have is gone. Stolen,” Sommer said.
“It was my last year of eligibility for UNO, it was a few weeks before nationals, I mean everything was just gone,” she said, “So I didn’t know who I was for a long time.”
Sommer married Marcel Erkens, a former water polo player for the Netherlands on May 15, 2010.
It was through the experience of finding herself, along with motivation from her husband, that she changed career paths from criminal justice into massage therapy. Sommer said she had always had trainers and massage therapists helping her through injuries during her swimming career. Massage therapy was a way she could help others in the same way.
She began to make her way back into the swimming community through volunteering with the UNO swim and dive team.
“It really helped me because now I love being on the pool deck, and I’m not scared to be on the pool deck. It doesn’t upset me like it used to,” she said.
She found happiness and peace once again being around swimming and said she is immensely grateful to the athletes of the swim and dive team for helping her through such a tough time in her life.
“It means a lot because you guys gave me a part of me back,” she said.
Sommer sees herself staying a part of the UNO swimming and diving program but imagines branching out to do other things. Her greatest hope is to get into the athletic side of UNO and hopefully work with other sports.
Though Sommer’s experiences are incredible, she does not want to be defined by her Olympics or the fact that she is blind. She sees the Olympics as a fantastic opportunity that she is incredibly grateful for. She is proud of her performances and said she feels as though that she swam to the best of her abilities.
“It wasn’t the ‘end all be all’ for me because there was stuff that happened along the way that I think helped me be who I am more so than just doing that,” she says “It’s just one of those things I don’t want to define my life by.”