At the age of 21, swimmer Elizabeth Stone is looking forward to competing in her third Paralympic Games in London this summer. Since winning a silver medal in the 100m backstroke in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, China, she has taken gold, silver, and bronze at disability championships around the world.
Elizabeth's story might be very different if Linda Stone hadn't recognized the spirit in the little girl born in the Republic of Georgia in 1991—the year the Soviet Union collapsed.
"In the pictures [the orphanage] sent, the other four girls had cute little bows in their hair, but they looked totally passive," Stone recalls. "Elizabeth was screaming her head off. She looked like a fighter."
Stone had been trying for several years to adopt a child with special needs from the United States. She had been working as a physical therapist with special education students in the local public school system for more than a decade and wanted to use her skills to provide a home for a child who might be difficult to place.
In 1994, she was set to adopt a toddler with spina bifida, but sadly, the child died before the placement was finalized. Stone's case manager suggested she look into an international adoption. That's how she met Elizabeth, who came to live with Stone in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Elizabeth was four years old at the time.
Elizabeth was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), and the bottom of her right foot was at about the same level as her sound left knee. Stone says that Elizabeth had received little medical care before coming to Michigan and got around mostly by scooting on her bottom.
Within the first month of arriving in the United States, Elizabeth was fitted with her first prosthesis at the Child Amputee Clinic, now the Center for Limb Differences, at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital (Mary Free Bed), Grand Rapids.
"She couldn't speak English then, but you could tell she was really thrilled with her new leg and what she could do with it," Stone says.
The next question was how to optimize Elizabeth's mobility. A Symes-like amputation to remove her right foot was indicated, but Stone wanted to wait until Elizabeth could speak English well enough to understand and express her wishes clearly. At that point, there was still a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding due to the language barrier, Stone explains. For example, clinic staff thought Elizabeth had nicknamed her prosthesis "Becky" when she was simply using the Georgian word for leg, "p'ekhi."
By the time she was five and a half, Elizabeth's desire to ride a bicycle helped her accept the procedure. "I'm glad I gave her time to think about it," Stone recalls. "Before the surgery, she told me, 'I'm going to miss my cute little foot.' She did, but she hasn't stopped since."
After the surgery, Elizabeth had a slightly bulbous transfemoral residual limb, which provides a unique advantage, according to her prosthetist David Firlik, CP. "She can bear weight on the end of the limb, and we can suspend the socket from it as well," Firlik says. "She uses a Pelite liner insert, which creates a soft interface to adjust the circumference. She can slide into the socket without using a valve to create suction."
Because of the nature of her amputation, Firlik says that he has not had to make Elizabeth new sockets to accommodate circumferential growth, but he has lengthened her prosthetic leg as she grew taller. He adds that he and Elizabeth have collaborated on setting up her prosthesis so she can change out her foot on her own.
Firlik says that as Elizabeth progressed through childhood and adolescence, she burned out several Ottobock hydraulic knees. "With all her athletic activities, she just goes so fast and so hard, she puts a lot of strain on the device." However, unlike many of his pediatric patients, she always took good care of her prosthesis, he says. Elizabeth doesn't wear her leg to swim or have a unique prosthesis for sports. She switches from her walking foot to an Össur Cheetah Flex-Foot to run with the knee locked. She also skis, bicycles, and plays softball and wheelchair basketball. She says she swims competitively "because when I'm in the pool it's not as much of a disadvantage. I feel the same as everybody else."
The Thrill of Victory
A little motherly push helped Elizabeth discover her passion for competitive swimming. Stone discovered that although Elizabeth had no fear of the water, she had never learned to swim, so she enrolled her in lessons at the local pool when she was nine years old. Elizabeth saw the club swim team practicing after her lessons, and she begged her mother to let her join.
"After the first few practices, I hated it," Elizabeth says. "I wanted to quit, but my mom said I had to go to one meet and then we'd talk about it."
Stone describes her experience of watching the two events in which her daughter competed during her first meet as "painful." Swimming against able-bodied competitors, Elizabeth finished last "by a mile" in the 50m freestyle and next-to-last in the 50m backstroke. It was not a gold-medal performance, but it provided an unexpected thrill of victory.
"In the locker room after the meet, I was pretty sure she still wanted to quit," Stone says. "But she looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding? I beat that one person! I love it!'"
That competitive spirit carried Elizabeth on to regional meets with the club team. While her limb deficiency kept her out of contention in sprints, Elizabeth found that she could excel in long-distance events where determination and endurance are essential.
She competed against other athletes with disabilities for the first time at the 2001 University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) Endeavor Games, Edmund. Stone and Elizabeth went to the Endeavor Games with the financial help of the Mary Free Bed Guild, which owns Mary Free Bed.
"I had just started swimming, but the coaches there said I had lots of potential," Elizabeth remembers. "They said I needed to switch to a USA Swimming-sanctioned team."
That's when Stone first realized that her daughter could be destined for bigger things. In 2002, Elizabeth joined a sanctioned team in nearby Rockford, Michigan, and began competing nationally at disability swim meets. At the 2004 U.S. Paralympic Trials in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Elizabeth took first place in both the 800m and the 1500m freestyle, but she was still surprised when she made the team.
The prospect of competing in the Paralympics in Athens, Greece, was a bit overwhelming. "I was 13 years old and didn't really know what the Paralympic movement was," she says. "I was totally shocked when they said I had papers to fill out to go to Athens."
Although she did not medal in Athens, Elizabeth says the experience was eye-opening.
"Until then, I had been the only disabled athlete on any of my teams, and I was only average," she explains. "I am much more competitive in Paralympics. It's really cool to see all the athletes with different disabilities competing in all the events. It's an amazing thing to see, and it still impresses me."
Back home, she continued to swim for Grand Rapids Christian High School. In 2006, she was the first athlete with a disability at her school ever to be named to an All-Conference Team, while she also competed nationally and internationally at disabled sporting events. She was part of the 2006 gold medal 4x100m medley relay team at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Swimming World Championships in Durban, South Africa, and part of the gold medal 4x100m free relay team in 2010 in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
Elizabeth set the American record in the 100m backstroke during the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials and earned a trip to the Paralympic Games in Beijing. There she broke her own record by more than three seconds and took her first Paralympic medal.
While Elizabeth travels with the Paralympic team, Stone says she has been blessed to have the financial support of members of her church and the community, which has enabled her to attend the competitions to cheer on her daughter.
After Beijing, Elizabeth returned to Grand Rapids and enrolled in community college while still training and competing. Then she was selected to spend the 18 months prior to the 2012 Paralympic Games training in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
"I wanted her to keep on with college," Stone says. "But she has her heart set on London and doing the best she can. And with no jobs here for people her age, it's not necessarily a bad thing if she takes a couple of years off to do what she wants to do."
The trials for the London Games were held June 14–16 in Bismarck, North Dakota. Although results were not available by the time this issue went to press, during an April interview, Elizabeth said she had been swimming well and was confident that she would make the U.S. Paralympic team, but added that she has to compete against about 40 other swimmers, just like everyone else.
What Elizabeth does next depends on her showing in London. She plans to apply to college to study sports medicine and nutrition so that she can become an athletic trainer or coach, but she hasn't yet decided if she'll retire from competitive swimming. One of her goals is to compete in an Ironman triathlon.
"I would not be surprised in the least if she did the Ironman," Firlik says. "Elizabeth has always had that quiet determination to achieve whatever she sets her mind to. She has always impressed me, even when she was a tiny girl."
Kate Hawthorne is a freelance writer living and working in Fort Collins, Colorado. She can be reached at