My name is Sophia Herzog-Gibb, and I am 26 years old. I have a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, and am excited to have the opportunity to share my story with you. I was raised in a family of two average sized parents in a small town called South Park, Colorado, with a population of 450. There were no tryouts for sports in my school because there were only 100 kids in my high school, so I did everything: dance, basketball, rode horses, and skied. I was the first person to go through my school district with a physical disability; it was a learning experience for all parties involved. People always assumed I was never bullied at my school since it was so small, and everyone knew everyone. Sadly, that was not the case. I was bullied in the form of isolation, and decided my freshman year of high school I was going to graduate as early as possible. I ended up graduating a year early and moved two weeks after graduating into the Olympic/Paralympic Training Center to train in hopes to qualify for the 2016 Rio Paralympics for swimming.

I learned how to swim as a child and through friends, I was invited to watch a Paralympic swim meet. I was inspired by all the different types of athletes competing at this elite level; there were athletes with only one arm swimming and breaking world records like it was an everyday ordeal, fully blind athletes putting their full trust into the coaches at the other end of the pool to tap them to let them know when to turn so they do not smash into the wall at full throttle. I have met people that overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The second I walked into the Olympic Camp; Paralympic training center; I was hooked. I wanted to be like these exceptional athletes. I set my sights on the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. I trained for two years, every day for 6 hours a day. I trained with and was inspired by athletes that came from all over the world to train at the Olympic/Paralympic training center in Colorado Springs. I found out I qualified for the team two months before the Rio games. When we got to Rio, I knew I was there to do a job. Once there, I never left the Paralympic village. I stayed, trained, ate, slept, and cheered on fellow team USA athletes. I got there that night, walked out into the roaring stadium, saw my family in the stands, saw my coach on the deck and got onto the blocks. I knew I could do it. I had visualized this race over and over for the past two years. This is what I trained my heart out for and had solely dedicated the last two years of my life to. I swam the swim of my life. I dropped two seconds and became a silver medalist. My childhood dreams became a reality in that 1:36. I pulled myself out of the pool, looked up and saw my teammates waving the American flag cheering, then it hit me like a ton of bricks that I just won a medal for my country. The feeling is still indescribable. I did what some said couldn’t be done. I defeated the odds. I came from a town with no swim team to
being a medalist on the national team for the United States of America.

With the 2016 win behind me, I decided why not go for another games four years later in Tokyo 2020? I was 19 at the time and in the best shape in my life and I had nothing better to do so why not try again! Within the four/five years between the Olympic games, a massive personal growth happened for me. I got a college degree, I met my future-husband and we moved to Salida so I could have a better training environment. I trained and competed through a global pandemic. The journey to the Tokyo Paralympic Games was something so unimaginable. Looking back on it now I just think how proud I am of the challenges I faced and the mental strength it took just to reach my dream and have the opportunity to step up on the blocks at Tokyo. The challenges of training ranged from swimming in the Arkansas River,  to swimming at an outdoor pool at night in the dark with glow sticks on, and even going through two separate 7-day isolations to enter a “bubble” at the Olympic/Paralympic Training Center.

Another aspect of going to Tokyo was having a ton more pressure as I was a returning medalist. I found out through a zoom call I qualified for my second Paralympics. Let me explain some of the pandemic pressure we had to endure to just be able to enter Tokyo: I could not contract covid within 90 days of leaving, once our plane landed in Tokyo we stayed on the plane and every single person had a covid test. We could not get off the plane until all tests came back negative. If there was one positive the plane would not be able to deplane, we would be stuck. Once in Tokyo we were tracked via our phones and if we came in contact with someone who tested positive, we would be sent home immediately. There were loads of variables that affected me that were completely out of my control, which was incredibly hard for a type-A personality type! The day of the 100- breaststroke came and I was so amped. I was ready to have the stress of five years be lifted, and to see what I could do as a very different athlete than I was in Rio. I remember going through my routine that day (warming up, putting my suit on, etc.) and just saying “oh my god Sophia, oh my god” probably a million times before I stepped out into the physically empty, but virtually buzzing, beautiful stadium. I swam a new best time that broke the American record I had been hunting down for 10 years and became a two-time paralympic medalist, winning a bronze. Everyone always asks, “what went through my mind when I touched the wall and
looked at the scoreboard?” The best word I can use to describe it is, relief. NBC had my family on the camera, and I was able to share my accomplishment with them virtually. That night I probably slept the best I had in three years; the job was finally done.

The burning question is, what’s next? I have officially retired from professional swimming, though I still swim twice a week with the master’s team, here in Salida. I am currently getting my MBA online, and working with Chaffee County Public Health which I absolutely enjoy.