WASHINGTON – College athletes all over the country work to balance their classes and overcome adversity to become the best they came be in their respective sports.
20 years ago, the United States hosted the 10th Paralympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. In 1996, a rising senior from The Catholic University of America participated in those Games proving to herself and the world that she could be the very best.
On June 19, 1975, in Pittsburgh, Pa., Joyce (Luncher) Hale was born to Ray and Jo Luncher with amniotic-banding syndrome. This meant that during the early stages of development her arm bud was amputated. She was born with a right arm that ends just a few inches below her elbow joint. She has no right hand, wrist or forearm.
To most people, having half a limb might pose something of a challenge, but not to Hale. It certainly did not stop her from becoming Catholic University's 1997 Donley Cup winner after her four-year career in swimming, arguably one of the toughest physical and mental sports.
"The fact is I have a short arm. I make do with what I have. I've never known my body any other way. I don't see my arm as a challenge, especially when it comes to swimming" said Hale.
Hale was a member of the Cardinals' 1995 National Catholic School (NCS) Division III Championship squad where she was the second-place finisher in the 200-yard butterfly. But even more impressively, she earned a spot on the podium seven times at the 10th Paralympic Games in Atlanta.
"My experience at the '96 Paralympics is difficult to sum up with one word. It was surreal. It was amazing. It was life changing. I'll never forget the feeling when I walked onto the pool deck for the first practice. I saw tons of prosthetic arms and legs lying around. The sight was so strange, I was used to seeing only my own. After a day or two, that sight didn't seem so strange anymore," said Hale about her experience.
During the Atlanta Games Hale won four gold and three silver medals while setting seven American records and four world records. She was the top finisher in the 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, 50-meter freestyle and 4x100 medley relay, setting world records in each event. Additionally, she silver medaled in the 100-meter breaststroke, 200-meter individual medley and 4x100 freestyle relay.
Hale proved to be one of the best Paralympic athletes in the world that summer. Her dedication and perseverance pushed her to be a champion, but her career in the pool started well before then.
At the age of four, Hale hopped in the pool for her first practice and then competed in her first race when she was five. It was just four years later when her oldest brother Gary was preparing to be a collegiate swimmer, that she set her sights on NCAA competition.
"My brothers Gary and Mark, who were seven and eight years older than me, were swimmers," explained Hale "At a young age, I would get bored as a spectator at their practices and ask my mom, 'when can I swim?' Swimming was just part of our lives and there was no question in my mind that I would be on the swim team."
In the early 90's, Hale began her college search with the aspirations of becoming a collegiate swimmer and pursuing a biomedical engineering degree. Hale also focused her search on Catholic institutions. Just four hours from home, The Catholic University of America made it to the top of her list.
At the time, Catholic University was just one of 20 schools in the nation that was accredited for biomedical engineering. With the help of former Catholic head swimming coach Tom Calomeris (Coach Cal), Hale became certain that she would be successful in and out of the pool at Catholic and joined the Cardinals for the fall of 1993.
"Choosing Catholic and being a student-athlete was a great experience," explained Hale. "Coach Cal always told us that our academics came first. I never had any doubt about the priorities. As a student-athlete I immediately had a network of people surrounding me and supporting me."
The late Calomeris passed away in the fall of 2014, but not before leaving his legacy on the Catholic Swimming and Diving teams.
Calomeris coached at Catholic from 1987-2004, garnering four Capital Athletic Conference championships (1994, 1995, 1999, 2000) with the Cardinals. His 1994 and 1995 men's teams won NCS Division III championships while the 1995 women's team took the NCS national championship.
It was Calomeris who recruited Hale to Catholic and introduced her to the idea of training for the Paralympics.
"Coach Cal approached me one day after practice and told me about the Paralympics, an arena where I could compete against athletes who also had amputations," recalled Hale. "He said that I could do really well since I was able to compete against able-bodied athletes."
20 years ago, just a junior in college, Hale didn't quite understand the commitment that she was signing up for. She thought she would compete in a few meets and that would be that. So with the love of the sport and trust in Coach Cal, Hale took a leap of faith and decided to train for the 1996 Summer Paralympic Games.
"I'm extremely grateful for that opportunity and that I said, 'Yes' to Cal," said Hale. "I trusted that if he thought this would be a good experience for me, then it would be."
With Calomeris as her coach, Hale trained vigorously for the Games. She recalled training in a local pool without any lighting. As the summer went on the sun would set earlier and earlier but they were not willing to cut practice short. A determined Calomeris would drive his car into the pool area and turn his headlights on to overcome the lighting issue.
"Coach Cal challenged me every day to give my best and he celebrated my successes," expressed Hale. "When I was having a day where I just didn't want to get in the water, he'd make me laugh and find some way to motivate me. He knew when to be gentle and when to be firm. He was the kind of coach I always respected and wanted to please."
In August 1996, when the rest of her classmates were preparing to begin their senior year, Hale made her way to Atlanta. Her first race of the Games was the 50-meter freestyle. Standing behind the block in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, the stands full and the crowd roaring, Hale was ready to put all of her hard work to the test. She dove into the water and touched the wall first, earning her first gold and setting the World Record.
"Standing on the medal stand, I watched the American Flag being raised while the Star Spangled Banner played. It was then that it really sunk in that I was not only competing for myself but for my country," stated Hale. "I was representing the United States of America. I felt honored!"
Hale went on to medal in six additional events for USA over the course of the Games.
For her the experience was truly life changing. Along with fostering her love for the sport and guiding her to success in the pool at the Games, Calomeris helped Hale find love on the pool deck.
All of the athletes trained individually with their coaches before coming together for the Games. Her future husband, Robert Hale was one of those coaches and was paired to room with Calomeris for the duration of the Games. Hale was immediately drawn to him.
Over the 10-day event, the pair got to know each other and spent continued time together. "He challenged me and made me laugh all at the same time." Just two years after the Atlanta Games the couple was married.
In 2016, 20 years after the Atlanta Paralympics and reaching the 20-year mark of Hale's graduation from The Catholic University of America, the couple resides in Cumberland, Maine. They have a daughter Molly (14) and twin boys Bradyn and Keegan (10), all who are competitive swimmers.
Joyce is now a math teacher at the local high school and still swims recreationally and participates in some open water races. She keeps in contact with her Catholic Cardinal teammates via Facebook alumni groups.
"Making the decision to come to Catholic was one the best choices I have ever made," expressed Hale. "My teammates supported me a through everything. They made me laugh, lifted my spirits, and always encouraged me to keep going. I am so grateful for that experience."
Hale graduated from The Catholic University of America in 1997. She was honored by the Athletics Department with the Donley Cup which recognizes the Outstanding Female Senior Student-Athlete.
In addition to her accomplishments at Catholic and the '96 Paralympic Games, Hale received multiple awards including Disabled Sports USA 1995 Female Athlete of the Year and 1996 Sportswoman of the Year Award for Athlete with a Physical Disability by Women's Sports Foundation. For a list of Hale's swimming career highlights, click here.