Evan Wilkerson, a 17-year-old Wake Forest student of the NC Virtual Academy, recently competed in the 2023 Parapan American Games held in Santiago, Chile, from Nov. 17-26, taking home silver and bronze medals as a member of Team USA.
The Parapan American games, a multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities, was held in Chile for the first time in history. The event brings together individuals from North and South America to compete in 17 sports every four years.
Reflecting on the competition, Wilkerson was ecstatic after earning medals in two swimming events.
“The games were absolutely amazing,” he told Carolina Journal in an interview. “It was an intense environment. The crowds are larger, and it’s so much more high stakes. It was so much fun. When you can get out there and you’re able to survive under all that pressure and can make your way up to the podium and medal, it’s great. I received a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke.”
Wilkerson, who is visually impaired, became interested in swimming early in life.
“I started swimming when I was 3 years old, just taking lessons at the YMCA,” he said. “I started on a competitive team around age 6, so I stuck with that until 2016.”
It was in 2016 when Wilkerson and his sister, who is also a visually impaired swimmer, began attending the paralympic swimming trials in Charlotte to learn how the top competitors prepare for the event.
“We were in Charlotte, and I saw the Olympic trials being held,” he said. “There were other visually impaired athletes out there getting ready to go to the games and I thought to myself, ‘Ok, this is doable. People like me are out here getting ready to go beat some of the best in the world. I can do this.’”
His first competitive meet was in Georgia that same year, and he took advantage of the experience.
“In late 2016, my first meet was in Augusta, Georgia,” said Wilkerson. “It was a really cool experience just to be able to get out there and race against other people with disabilities. At the meet, I had just started figuring out the tapping system.”
“Tapping” refers to the assistance given to visually impaired swimmers during a meet or practice. Individuals are stationed at each end of the pool and will tap the swimmer with a rod-type device which alerts the swimmer they are getting close to the pool wall. The tapping will be synchronized with the swimmer’s movements which allow the swimmer to keep their pace.
“When you’re a blind swimmer, you don’t really know where the wall is until you’re there,” Wilkerson said when discussing the learning process for tapping during practices and meets. “Prior to attending the paralympic trials in Charlotte, I knew where the wall was basically when I hit it. Competing at the meet in Augusta allowed me to refine a couple things with how I tap during meets and practices. It’s a continuous evolution.”
Wilkerson’s overall goal with swimming is to compete in the paralympic games in 2024, which will be hosted in Paris, France.
“I’m a very goal-oriented person,” he said. “Seeing the trials in Charlotte gave me a goal and really made me push myself to be better in the pool and improve to reach my goal of attending the paralympic games.”
Training for the highly competitive meets is no small task, and Wilkerson attested to the nature of the preparation, which include early morning workouts and lots of swimming laps with the New Wave Swim Team based out of Raleigh. The training regimen varies depending on event scheduling and Wilkerson’s school schedule.
“The team that I swim for is the New Wave Swim Team. We train six days a week for two hours each day,” said Wilkerson. “It’s a little brutal sometimes. I also do weight training, pull ups, pushups, bench press, and shoulder exercises. There is also a lot of mental toughness training, meditation, and visualization as well.”
He is also a dedicated student-athlete and attends high school at the NC Virtual Academy, a full-time online public charter school for students K-12 with unique learning circumstances. The school enables students to receive their high school education from the convenience of home.
Having the convenience of attending school from home has been very beneficial according to Wilkerson, given his strenuous training routine. He said he is grateful for the flexibility the Virtual Academy offers.
“It gives me a lot of flexibility,” Wilkerson said. “It’s much more flexible than a public, in-person school. With the Virtual Academy, I can get up whenever I want, I can do my work, and as long as I show up to the live classes and my work gets done, that’s all that matters.”
An unwavering support system
Competing in small meets, national championships, two world series, and the Parapan American games would not have been possible without the support of his parents.
“I would not be here without my parents,” he said. “My mom drives me to practices and workouts, and gets me what I need. She taps at most of my meets. My dad has always been encouraging as well. He’s the engine that drives me forward when I’m having a hard time or I’m struggling with dropping time while swimming.”
His mother Traci is very proud of her son and his continuous accomplishments.
“I’m glad he’s stuck with swimming and he’s really taken it up a notch and is enjoying it, which is really important,” she told CJ. “He loves the competitive side of it. I’m extremely proud of him for his medals in Santiago. The networking that will come with it and all the traveling and being able to see a lot of the world. I’m glad he’s connected in this way and becoming a more well-rounded person. I’m just really proud of him.”
All roads hopefully lead to a spot on the USA paralympic team next summer. In terms of next steps, Wilkerson said there are several events in the coming months leading up to the paralympic games.
“My plan is to compete in national championships in two weeks, a world series in April, and the paralympic trials in June, which will be my make-or-break event,” he said. “Depending on how it goes at trials, I could be bound for the paralympic games in Paris at the end of August, which has been my goal for the past seven years.”
Professionally, his goal is to be involved with Christian ministry, which he plans on majoring in as a college student.
“After high school I want to go to the Olympic training center for a year and just focus on my swimming,” he said. “Once I’m finished with that, my plan is to attend Oklahoma Christian University, Wheaton University, or Grove City College. Those are my top three choices. My goal is to earn a degree in Christian ministry or a related field.”
When asked about advice he would give to others who are working towards a goal, he stressed the importance of not giving up.
“In 2016 I never dreamed I’d be where I am right now,” Wilkerson said. “It was always a goal but I always thought it would be out of reach. I never thought I would be here competing on one of the world’s largest stages. You really just have to dig deep. If you want something you have to dig deep. You have to keep your eyes on the prize, take it day by day, and you can’t get distracted by pain or pleasure or any other pathways. You have to keep going.”