David Abrahams never allows himself to waste one minute during a day.
That was especially true while he was a student at Haverford High School starring on the swimming team, and continued in his transition to Harvard University, where he is entering his junior year. It’s very important for him to stick to the schedule, whether it’s practicing or studying.
“He suffers greatly when he’s not busy,” said his mother, Rebecca. “He does best when there’s always something on the agenda. He handles the task of being a Harvard student and a Division I swimmer very well because he has to. Every single second has something going on and so he just rises to the occasion.”
A mathematics major, Abrahams has risen to the occasion, academically and athletically, time and time again since he started noticing at age 13 that he was losing his vision. He later was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a genetic eye disorder that causes progressive vision loss.
Still, that has not deterred his desire to continue to swim competitively. He continues to train for what will be the pinnacle of his career so far, the Paralympics in Tokyo, where he will compete in his specialty, the 100-meter breaststroke, as well as the 100 butterfly and the 200 individual medley.
Abrahams, 20, will compete in the SB-13 class, which he explained was “the least restrictive category of visual, individuals that have a visual impairment but still get to the water and see the walls and all that.”
The Havertown resident has been legally blind since eighth grade. He has his peripheral vision but has lost his central vision -- needed for reading, driving and seeing other people or objects that are directly in front of him -- because of macular degeneration caused by lipids that build up in cells at the back of his eye under the macula.
When it first happened, “It definitely was a little scary at first,” Abrahams said.
“I didn’t really know what to expect because there was a period I wasn’t sure if I was going to lose all my vision or not, or still be able to use some of it,” he said. “So it was definitely a lot at a time at such change in life, in life for everybody to have that on top of it. But it was because of my parents and my family and my support system, I was able to get through that time relatively unscathed, and I think I grew up a lot from that kind of experience.”
Abrahams is the youngest of four children, all boys, to Rebecca and Doug Abrahams. And every family member helped him stay positive through the early uncertainties, and continue their never-ending support.
“There were definitely times when I’d say, ‘Why is this happening?’” he said, “but never anything too bad.”
“One of my favorite David quotes is, ‘Well, at least I know what’s wrong with me,’” his mother said. “That describes him to a T. He just goes about life and he doesn’t let things get in the way. One of the interesting things about our genetic family background is that he grew up knowing relatives who were also blind -- not from his blindness but a different kind of blindness.
“So for him, he saw high-functioning adults around him who were blind, and they just went on about their lives, so I don’t think it ever occurred to him to think that he could do anything less than that.”
Support for Abrahams also came from other areas. He received itinerant services while in high school for three years from the Overbrook School for the Blind, a program that provides “support, strategies and technologies to help the student access (his or her) curriculum,” according to the school website. It also helps with Braille and communication.
“He’s been very, very fortunate to have been surrounded by very generous, very caring, very talented people,” said his father, “both in terms of swimming and also scholastics, really for as long as I can remember. He certainly wouldn’t be where he is without all those people having helped him so significantly.”
David Abrahams called his time with Overbrook School “pretty key to my success.” He said a particular help to him was Diana Cucurullo, who was his Braille teacher as he started his sophomore year at Haverford High.
“She taught me that it was OK to be different,” he said. “It was OK to try to figure out how to work through some of these things. That helped me in my middle-to-later years of high school, going on to college. I had to accept my position and all that.”
Cucurullo called Abrahams “an incredibly hard worker.”
“He never saw his disability as a disability,” she said. “He didn’t let it hold him back at all. He not only was learning Braille with me three times a week, but he was also maintaining his swim schedule, taking AP classes. He had the workload of probably 10 people, and he got everything accomplished.
“He was a great communicator with his teachers, a great advocate for himself. He was very quick to self-advocate for his needs. I think that was probably the best thing that he learned through all this, is when to ask for help. Whenever he saw a potential problem, he problem-solved, he planned ahead, he reached out to the people necessary. He was very independent in that way.”
In swimming, Abrahams became a rising star. He was a four-time All-Central League and a two-time All-State selection. His mother remembered a breakout swim for him in the 2018 junior national meet that had coaches lined up seeking to speak with him.
“They didn’t know they were recruiting a blind swimmer, they just wanted a fast swimmer,” she said.
Harvard coach Kevin Tyrrell was not one of the coaches present, but the swim was the last piece that qualified Abrahams for the university since he already had the grades and test scores, Rebecca said. Tyrrell offered Abrahams a spot for admission, he accepted, and the admission process was later finalized.
With his swim in the 200 breaststroke, where he finished in 2 minutes, 16.60 seconds, he qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. He considered competing in the trials this year but decided to focus on the Paralympics.
Abrahams worked on his technique and getting race experience in his freshman season at Harvard while transitioning to Ivy League academics, recalling, “I’d never worked so hard in my life.” The cancellation of the 2020-21 season limited his opportunities.
His introduction to a new level of swimming came in April at the World Para Swimming World Series meet in Lewisville, Texas, where he won four races and posted an American record time of 1:04.07 in the 100 breaststroke final. What most impressed him about the meet, however, was the kinship and camaraderie he experienced.
“It’s almost like you’re not competing against each other,” he said. “You’re competing against yourself and showing that it’s possible to reach the highest level of competition with certain parts of you that aren’t, in a certain sense, ideal.
“I really connected with people on the deck and stuff like that. I don’t think that would be possible in any other setting because those are people that I think understand a lot better what I’m going through, and obviously it goes both ways. You have the highest respect for everybody around you. So I think that level of sportsmanship and quality of people is what drew me to Para swimming.
Two months later, he competed in the U.S. Paralympic Trials in Minneapolis and qualified in three events. For the Paralympics themselves, his primary event will be the 100 breaststroke, scheduled for Sept. 1. He said most of his training centers on that discipline and that he is “kind of filling in the gaps” with the other two events.
The anticipation keeps building for Abrahams. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he’s ready to go.
“I’m beyond excited,” he said. “This is definitely the biggest meet I’ve ever competed in and it’s the first international meet I’ve ever competed in, so I’m just really excited to have this opportunity to represent my country, which I’ve never been able to do before. So I’m just thrilled honestly, and I can’t wait.”