If you walk into Lake Washington High School on any given day and ask for Justin, chances are people will know who you're talking about. If you go to the Juanita High School pool any weekday after school, it's a no-brainer. Around the pool, Justin is practically an institution.
In case you haven't heard, Justin Fleming is an unassuming 16-year-old kid with massive shoulders and an upper body that's only found on athletes. His extraordinary talent in swimming will take him to Athens this summer to represent the U.S. in the Paralympics. Oh yeah, Justin is an amputee.
As a result of birth defects that affected his extremities, Justin was never expected to walk. During his young life, he has undergone countless operations, six of them before the age of 4. On his left side, he has no fibula (the bone between the knee and the ankle) and no ankle joint. His right side is worse: he uses a prosthesis as he has no hip, and is missing his fibula and a portion of his thighbone. His right ankle was amputated before the age of 2.
OK, so this is Justin's past history. Frankly, he would rather talk about why he is about to make history.
In April he went to Minneapolis to the U.S. Paralympic swimming trials with every intention of qualifying for the national team. Qualify, he did, and them some.
"Once we got to Minneapolis, I saw that he was mentally and physically ready," says his Wave Aquatics swim coach, Bret Williams. He really got the race strategies together and had a great meet. He performed at the highest level he could and focused on his business."
The result? Three golds and four silvers. In addition, Williams says Justin established himself as the number one distance freestyler in the U.S. He quickly adds, "And one of the top in the world."
"I pushed my body as far as it could go," reports the champion. "I had a really good preliminary race and came back at night and had an amazing 400 (freestyle). I got into a rhythm early on. My splits were really, really even. I didn't have an muscle problems or spasms."
After winning his qualifying trials and securing a spot on the U.S. team, Justin wryly suggested they go out for Greek food as an additional way to train. He will have a few months to acclimate his stomach in local Greek restaurants before departing Sept. 7 with the team, his parents, grandparents and some close family members. The games begin on Sept. 19.
His goal in Athens? "I would like to be on the medal stand," Justin says confidently yet modestly. To make the podium, adds his coach, "he needs to have the swim of his life. He will have to perform at an amazing level to do it. But he's going there to get a medal." Then he adds, "He wants some hardware."
"As long as I stay healthy I think I have a pretty good chance. The 400 free-is my best chance." Justin is ranked eighth in that division; the first ranked swimmer is from China. Depending on how Justin swims and the number one seed swims will determine his outcome. To bolster his chances, Justin has been conferring with the world record holder in this event, who happens to be American.
So what's after Athens? The first thing he says is that he will captain the LWHS swim team (which is able-bodied, mind you) and will start his fourth year with Wave Aquatics, a year-round swim club. So you see where this young man's priorities are. He values his friends and family, knowing full well that swimming, which is defining his life right now, provides only temporary fulfillment.
His next big meet will be June 2005 at the U.S. Disability Nationals. (He qualified for the U.S. Disability Swimming team because of his time standards at the Minneapolis trials. As part of the disability team, he gets part of his training paid for. This could mean as much as $2,000 per year.)
Of course, June also means high school graduation, which is followed quickly by college, where he would like to continue competitive swimming. Then the 2008 Paralympics in China. And then, because the newly released cities "look interesting," he may shoot for 2012. (Justin has very cosmopolitan taste - the cities are London, Paris, Moscow and New York.)
"After that, I kind of have to get a real job and get a life." But oh what a life he has now.
Williams is well aware of his protégé's extraordinary talent. But as hard as he tries to be understated, Williams has trouble hiding his pride. "I have seen a lot of growth in Justin this year. A couple of coaches came up to me and noticed a big difference from this year to last year," says Williams. "Our whole team, which is over 200 people, is really excited for Justin."
Williams remember a very poignant moment at their annual team banquet last month. "I stood up and said, 'We had something very special happen a few weeks ago. We have our first Olympic qualifier.' And then boom! The place went berserk. Everyone stood up. There were a lot of tears."
No doubt there will be plenty more.[[In-content Ad]]