Virginia has sent 49 athletes to the Olympics in Tokyo – 19 from UVA, 11 from Virginia Tech, three from JMU and two from Liberty. In mid-August, two men from the University of Mary Washington will compete in the Paralympics – swimming for gold with limited use of their legs.
Joey Peppersack is in Colorado Springs now, lifting weights and swimming 2-4 hours, 8 or 9 times a week in spite of a disability that might have kept him out of the water.
“I’m missing a leg on the right side, above the knee," he explains. "I had to learn how to adapt and not swim in circles whenever I tried to kick.”
One of his coaches at the University of Mary Washington, Zach Shattuck, will also take part in the Paralympics. He was born with a condition that limited growth of his legs. He’s just 4' 6" tall, but the experience of international competition has given him a big emotional boost.
“It is an opportunity and a place for athletes that otherwise would never get the chance to compete at that elite level," he says. "It’s not only inspiring to your teammates and your coaches from watching. It’s inspiring to that next generation of younger athletes who see this kid swimming fast and getting to this level, and they’re like, ‘Okay, I have something to look forward to doing and really strive to reach instead of thinking, there’s nothing out there for me.”
Peppersack started swimming competitively when he was nine, but Shattuck came to the sport in college. Now, both say they’re excited to be heading for Tokyo, and whether they win medals or not, training has given them gifts for a lifetime.
"You have a chance to travel the world and meet tons of cool people and coaches and just learn about yourself. You get to push yourself to limits you never thought possible. You learn how to take care of your body and how to recover and train," says Shattuck.
"I guess it did give me some sort of confidence just knowing that I’m able to do something," Peppersack adds. "I can find a goal. I can break the goal and move on to the next one – just knowing that I’m in full control of whatever I’m doing. "
Paralympic swimmers compete in one of ten different categories. Some, for example, are blind or have cerebral palsy, while others are in wheelchairs or have intellectual disabilities. Forty-four hundred athletes will take part between August 24th and September 5th.