Wheelchair-bound athlete swims Lake Washington

Swimming 1.5 miles across Lake Washington is not something that just anyone can do.

Crystal Liston loves to explore the world around her

Swimming 1.5 miles across Lake Washington is not something that just anyone can do.

But former Issaquah resident and Liberty High School alumna Crystal Liston is anything but average.

Liston, now of Seattle, has been in a wheelchair since the age of 16, when a head-on car crash in Issaquah left her paralyzed from the navel down. However, she lets nothing stop her from maintaining a positive attitude and living life to the fullest every day.

And at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, the go-getter plans to make a big check on her bucket list by backstroking from Seattle to Mercer Island, following the path of the I-90 bridge.

“The pressure is on — there’s no backing out now!” Liston said.

Swimming the lake has been in the back of Liston’s mind ever since 2007, when she heard about young people in Kirkland doing the same thing. Now she’s bringing two friends along (“There might be a whole armada of us,” she joked), and is using the opportunity to raise money for a foundation close to her heart, Polar Bears International, which helps to protect polar bears from climate change.

“I figured I might as well make something of it, do something positive,” Liston said.

Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Liston was an avid skier as a child and planned to make it on the U.S. Winter Olympic ski team. Two family members had narrowly missed a shot at the Olympic Games, and Liston was determined that she would be the one to break the cycle of bad luck.

However, the 1990 car accident, which occurred just months before the Olympic tryouts, quashed her athletic dream. Others may have let such a disappointment ruin their lives, but not Liston.

“I said, ‘what do I do with myself?'” Liston related. A settlement from the accident left her financially independent for life, so she decided to use the opportunity to explore many different hobbies.

Four years after the accident, Liston, who had once been on her school’s dive team, began to develop a passion for swimming. Liston’s friend Lauren Hill, a Seattle police officer who was invited to try out for the U.S. Olympic swim team, told Liston that swimming was “all in the upper body,” Liston recalled. Liston said that this gave her hope that she, too, could excel in this sport.

It turns out that pushing a wheelchair up the steep hills of Seattle can be an asset in the water — Liston’s arms are extremely fit, which comes in handy in a sport where upper-body strength is a necessity. In fact, Liston actually has a higher level of endurance while swimming than her friends who are not disabled.

“It gives me hope, it makes me feel good,” she said. “I’m disabled, but not 100 percent. I can still do stuff.”

Additionally, Liston finds swimming to be an equalizing activity. “In the water, we’re all the same height,” she said. “In the water, I get to stretch out and be long.”

Somewhat accidentally, Liston has had practice distance-swimming before. While vacationing in Hawaii, her friends dared her to swim to a smaller island off the shore of Oahu. Although it took an hour, Liston, never one to back down from a challenge, proved her friends wrong.

“I was so hell-bent on showing them I could do it, that I forgot I had to swim back!” Liston laughed.

A self-proclaimed “dabbler,” Liston doesn’t waste a single moment of the life she has been given, and tries her hand at a variety of pursuits. She is currently taking a boat-building class as well as applying to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Washington, where she earned a B.A. in creative writing in 2011. A reading enthusiast, Liston loves to discuss medieval literature like Chaucer and Dante.

Liston’s carpe diem attitude also extends to her travels; she has visited Mexico, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Austria, the country of Georgia, South Africa and Australia, to name several. She blends her passion for swimming with her passion for exploring the world — she has swum with Great White Sharks in South Africa, and the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast. And she’s game for more adventures; she and her brother Brock have applied to be a team on world-travel competiton show “The Amazing Race.”

But Liston doesn’t just spend her time discovering herself — she also gives back to the community. Right now, she is using her hobby of knitting to make hats for homeless youth in Seattle. Her friend Aida Mosier said that Liston is an “advocate for people with disabilities,” and is trying to get state legislators to do a day in a wheelchair as a way of spreading awareness of physical disabilities.

“She is the kind of woman I want my child to be around … so he can see that he can accomplish whatever he sets his mind to,” Mosier said. “You have to work for it, but you can do it.”

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