LANCASTER, Pa. – Some people never learn to swim. Maybe out of fear, maybe they never get the opportunity to learn, or maybe physical impairments make it impossible.
Megan Liang, a sophomore at Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, is an exception to all these. She competes with the school's Division III varsity swimming team, embracing the physical demands of the sport and fearlessly training in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle, two events that require much stamina and drive.
"I enjoy the uniqueness of my challenge." Liang said. "When I'm in the water, I don't feel any different from anyone else in there with me."
In a sport that requires both legs to participate, Liang gets the job done with only one.
Born in Moraga, Calif. Liang was, like many children born to suburban families, placed in swim classes. She at first found these lessons to be pointless, but soon discovered the merits of her participation. In the spring of 2001 – at age 7 -- Liang returned home from a carnival with her family and discovered a large bruise surrounding her left knee. Confused, she ignored the seemingly harmless mark.
Two weeks later, after the bruise had spread down her leg, the pain was so severe that Liang could no longer sleep or walk. After an emergency visit to a nearby hospital, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone-related cancer, in her left leg. On Oct. 1, 2001, doctors amputated her left leg below the knee.
Despite her disability and with help from her family, Liang somehow continued to swim despite obvious difficulties.
"It just felt unnatural. I couldn't stay afloat and I had no useful sense of balance," said Liang, who wears a prosthetic out of the pool but not in it. "My brother and father would have to toss me in with floaties until I got the hang of it."
At an obvious disadvantage, Liang began to focus her attention and strength in her pulls rather than her kicks, compensating for her disability. She had difficulty keeping her direction in the water but soon adapted.
"I think it was mostly just slowly getting used to the feeling of the water that helped my orientation and using one leg to kick in the same pattern that I could kick with if I had two," Liang said. "Although my one leg is strong, it doesn't always make up for the lack of the other, so I eventually started working on pull because I knew I could maximize my utility that way at least."
Liang eventually gained back confidence and began to practice and compete with a local summer club. She continued to participate every summer until she joined a year-round club when she was 13.
Liang excelled in the sport and learned of Paralympic opportunities later that same year. In the spring of 2012, Liang qualified for the U.S. Paralympic trials in the 200 freestyle.
"I had never been so nervous, but at the same time," Liang said, "there was something beautiful and comforting about being surrounded by athletes with similar hardships."
Surrounded as well by friends, family, and her coach, Liang missed the qualifying time by seconds and failed to land a spot on the national team. The result did little to weaken her determination, and Liang quickly decided to try to continue swimming in college.
But she hit an obstacle when colleges notified her that her times were not up to the standards for most Division III programs. Little did the schools know that she was swimming despite the amputated leg. As a result, Liang enrolled at Franklin and Marshall and made the varsity as a walk-on.
She recently finished her second season with the team, and plans to return to the national Paralympic trials in 2016.
"I could not run or participate in any other sport, for that matter," Liang said. "I hated [swimming] at first, but eventually I got the hang of it and began to fall in love with swimming. It's the one thing I can do where I don't feel any different."
Ben Delia, coach of both the men's and women's swim programs at Franklin and Marshall since 2011, said Liang "is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. In all of my years of coaching, I have never encountered someone so driven and optimistic despite such harsh disadvantages.
"She constantly performs narrowly against top-class swimmers, and her attitude never ceases to bring smiles to the dressing room."
In distance swimming, stamina is as important as, if not more important than, physical power. Thus, when Liang competes in the 400 freestyle, the longer of her two distances, her endurance tends to be questioned, more so than that of able-bodied swimmers.
"I'm not sure if I could compare," she said with a smile. "I've never swum with two legs."