Deb Gruen Receives Amanda Walton Award

Deb Gruen. (photo by David Silverman,
Deb Gruen. (photo by David Silverman,

Senior Swimmer Honored for Overcoming Challenges

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Senior swimmer Deb Gruen (Hamden, Conn.) received the Yale Athletics Department's Amanda Walton Award for 2010 at Class Day exercises Sunday afternoon as part of Commencement Weekend. The award is presented to an outstanding student-athlete who has excelled in competition and who has shown spirit and courage in transcending unforeseen challenges. Gruen, who was born with spina bifida, has inspired those around her with remarkable achievements both athletically and academically. Those achievements include four world and Pan-American records, six American records and two Paralympic Games appearances in addition to her four years swimming for the Bulldogs. She was also a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship and will graduate with a B.A. in economics on Monday. Her senior thesis is on the application of econometrics to Paralympic swimming classifications.

Gruen, whose condition leaves her unable to use her legs when she swims and requires that she walk with a pair of canes, was named the New Haven Register Sports Person of the Year this past January for her accomplishments in 2009. That included a world-record performance in the 400-meter individual medley at the Spring Can-Am Championship in March and a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Paralympic World Championships in May. In the spring of 2009 she received Yale's Francis Gordon Brown Award, given to a junior “of good scholarship and character”. The award is named after Francis Gordon Brown, a College Football Hall of Famer who captained Yale to a national championship in 1900 but passed away at the age of 31 from diabetes.

Shortly after being honored as Sports Person of the Year by the Register this past January, Gruen ended her Yale athletic career on a high note by swimming in three different events at the prestigious Yale-Harvard-Princeton meet. She earned her fourth varsity letter this past season and received the Yale swimming and diving team's MacLeish Memorial Swimming Trophy. The trophy is awarded to the swimmer who “through her efforts and high ideals in sportsmanship and loyalty, best exemplifies the spirit of Kenneth MacLeish.”

Gruen's other recent honors include selection for the U.S. Paralympics team at the upcoming Swimming Worlds in Eindhoven, Netherlands, and the Bob Casey Courage Award from the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance.

Those recent accomplishments came on the heels of a similarly remarkable performance in 2008, including a semester in China. After competing in the Paralympics for the second time -- and winning her second bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke -- Gruen remained in Beijing to spend the fall of 2008 at Peking University despite barely speaking a word of Chinese at the outset. She wound up with a third-place finish in the Peking University Foreign Student Chinese Speech Competition. She has also been a speaker on Yale-China relations at the President's Council on International Affairs.

Gruen has also been extensively active in the community. She served as a reading tutor in her native Hamden from 2005 to 2007, and worked as an intern for Senator Joe Lieberman. She has also worked in the Yale School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases and in Yale's Department of Economics. Additionally, she served as a note taker in Yale's Resource Office on Disabilities.

Gruen began swimming as a youngster with Hamden North Haven and qualified for her first United States National Disability Championships at the age of 12. At the meet, held in Indianapolis, she set her first National record in the 100-meter butterfly. She went on to qualify for the 2002 IPC Swimming World Championships in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, where she finished fourth in the 400-meter freestyle, fifth in the 50-meter butterfly and sixth in the 100-meter breaststroke.

After two years of training Gruen earned a spot on the 2004 U.S. Paralympic Team. At the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, she won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. Her most memorable experience in swimming was watching the United States flag being raised during the medal ceremony and looking out into the stands to see the supporting faces of her team and family.

Gruen's four World and Pan-American records include the 1,500-meter freestyle (set in 2006), the 800-meter freestyle (set in 2007), the 200-meter breaststroke (set in 2008) and the 400-meter individual medley (set in 2009).

At Hamden Hall Country Day School, Gruen was the Valedictorian of her class and was a USA Scholastic All-American. She was also a member of the Cum Laude Society and a recipient of the Rensselaer Medal, the Yale Book Award and the Governor's Coalition for Youth with Disabilities Award. She was a Connecticut Scholar Athlete and was named a 2006 New Haven Register Youth of the Year. She was also the 2005-06 Connecticut Disabled Swimmer of the Year.

Gruen is a member of Morse College at Yale. Her sister, Michele, swam at the University of Rochester. Her mother, Susan, is the Town Attorney of Hamden, and her father, Jeff, is a Neonatologist and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Genetics, and Investigative Medicine at the Yale School of Medicine.

The Walton Award is named for Amanda Walton '02. Walton, a field hockey and lacrosse player at Yale, was involved in an automobile accident after her sophomore year. She overcame a coma and numerous injuries through hard work and determination, eventually returning to the Yale sideline as a special assistant with the field hockey team. In 2003 she received the NCAA Inspiration Award, and this past March she made her Paralympic swimming debut by winning three gold medals at the National Championships in San Antonio, Texas -- where she met many other Paralympic swimmers, including Gruen.


Comments from Deb Gruen's Yale swimming teammates:

"Deb is an enthusiastic friend, athlete and student. She is dedicated and impassioned, but what makes her an amazing teammate is her grace and poise. I think she might laugh if I described as having those two traits, but it is true. She handles every obstacle in her life with class. No matter how tough her life gets, no matter how many hours she puts in for school or getting ready for a big meet, she remains realistic and calm, tough and attentive. As exuberant as her personality is, her positive attitude is about the balance that she has in her own life. She remains positive where any other person might be sucked into a cynical attitude.

I know Deb very well, and it is perhaps only for that reason that I see how challenging the obstacles for her are. She always works with a smile and with warmth that is rare to find in people in any activity, at any age. Even when she is upset or hurt she never stops being devoted, no matter how stubborn an obstacle may be. Her dedication is so much a part of her nature, that where most people – even those we consider to be great and hardworking – might think to give up, she continues her pursuit of excellence. 

She is a wonderful example to everyone on the team for both swimming and school, but she is also a thoughtful adviser and trusted confidant. No matter how ludicrously high her standards may be for herself (and they can get pretty extreme), she never hesitates to remind people of their worth, and of what they have to offer."

– Senior Jennifer Karinen


"Deb has an amazingly positive personality that lights up any room, and an infectious laugh that can brighten anyone's day. Her down-to-earth attitude and sincere concern for others almost makes one forget that she has excelled to such a great extent both in the classroom and in the swimming pool. It has been a profound honor to get to know such a determined individual who will not let anything stop her from achieving her highest aspirations."

– Senior Craig Steen


"Deb is a wonderful person. I met her a few years ago through a friend of mine from back home in California who is also on the Paralympic Team. When he found out I was going to be swimming for Yale, he told me to look up a person named "Deb" since she was a swimmer and he thought the world of her. I am not the type of person to actively seek strangers out, but something about Deb's roster picture and the praise my friend had of Deb convinced me to talk to her. From the day I met her, I knew I had found a life-long friend. She is always positive, always happy to see me, and is incredibly enthusiastic. Every Sunday, we have dinner. It usually consists of me unloading my anxieties on her, but sometimes it's just us sitting together, talking about incredibly random things. I usually go into the dinner telling Deb "I only have about 45 minutes, then I have to get back to work", but somehow, I am never capable of spending less than an hour and a half with her. I treasure these one-on-one times because I get to spend time with one of the people I respect the most. She is dedicated, she is loyal, she is energetic, she is extremely intelligent, and she is my friend. Every time she asks me if I want to hang out with her, I am honored that she has chosen me above the hundreds (and I do not exaggerate here – Deb is really well known on campus) of people. I rarely think of Deb's disability because that is not who she is – she isn't a disabled person who happens to swim, she is a fantastic swimmer who happens to be disabled. And I feel that is how she approaches everything in life. I'm really going to miss her next year, but I know she is off to do amazing things and will likely change the world."

– Sophomore Hayes Hyde


"Deb is quite possibly the most driven person I know. I am continually amazed by her ability to set extraordinarily high goals and then see them through, despite the incredible number of activities competing for her attention. Her perseverance and dedication to swimming in particular have been inspiring to watch. I think her achievements in the sport speak for themselves, but just as important as her medals are the effort and positive attitude that made them possible. Deb has been a leader on the team both by example and through the advice and encouragement she provides her teammates. I cannot wait to see what she accomplishes over the next few years."

– Senior Andrea Clifford


Report by Sam Rubin '95 (, Yale Sports Publicity