"We must dare to break ingrained patterns"
Maja Reichard: Alum of the Year 2020 at KTH
Swimmer Maja Reichard was already beginning to lose her sight in her teens, but has continued her career at elite level. During her time as a Master of Science in Engineering student at KTH, she won 24 medals at the Paralympic Games and World Championships in swimming. She has now been crowned 2020 Alum of the Year.
In parallel with studying the Degree Programme in Energy and Environment, Reichard gained a remarkable seven gold medals at the European and World Championships and Paralympics, and set several world records in swimming. She refused to be beaten by a visual impairment caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that affects the retina.
To succeed, it was important for Reichard to continuously plan for the long-term, to seek help from her fellow students and to clearly communicate with her teacher – including the need not only to present PowerPoint slides, but also to carefully explain what they contained.
“As KTH is a Swedish National Sports University, I was able to adapt certain study activities and times to suit my swimming training and competition schedule,” she explains.
Reichard was one of Sweden’s best para-athletes in 2019 when she decided to put her sports life to one side and focus on other parts of her professional career.
“It was a big decision to stop swimming that has been my life for 16 years. I had always swum with joy, with structure and motivation. I was no longer able to combine these three,” she says.
There was simply not enough time in the day for both top level sport and a full-time job. With 20 hours a week of tough training sessions, plus time to warm up and get changed and travel to and from swimming baths, sport was a second full-time job.
“Life as a top class athlete also means you have to think about sport 24/7. Now I can allocate some of my time to representing para-athletics instead.”
For example, Reichard is also involved in running swimming camps and swim classes for visually-impaired children.
“Sport is still incredibly important to me, and all children should have a chance to participate. I am especially passionate about giving children with disabilities opportunities to be involved in sports, and surveys indicate that visually-impaired children in particular do too little exercise. If you don’t use your body, you will hardly be in a fit state to do anything else…”
Wants to contribute to change in society
Training and sport remain a big part of Reichard’s life. She rides, roller-skates and plays visually-impaired football.
“It is important that both spontaneous and organised sports work hand in hand, not in competition with each other. Every member of society should have the opportunity to exercise and be physically active.”
She has now relocated from Stockholm to a new house in Jönköping with her husband, they are expecting a child in November and she is continuing her career in urban planning at consultants WSP.
Her assignments include working on solutions for the high speed rail link between Järna and Linköping where the trains will reach speeds of 250 kmph.
“My greatest vision and hope concerns Swedish rail traffic and expansion of the railway network. If people are to be persuaded to take the train rather than fly or drive, rail services must have the capacity to operate on time and be accessible to all.
As part of her work, Reichard also tests accessibility at the new metro stations in Högdalen and Arenastaden, and provides advice on the best possible access routes for visually-impaired travellers.
“I want to contribute to change in society. I want to get out of the office more and give more lectures, and motivate people to question things in their everyday lives. My thesis is that we must dare to break ingrained patterns and not simply do things the way we always have done. We must be able to rethink things.”