Thomas Worthington freshman Alex Cooper stood proudly on the awards podium during the district swimming and diving meet Feb. 12 at Ohio State.
That’s what happens when a high school athlete makes history.
Cooper was one of the three competitors in the first Paralympic swimming events offered at the district meet by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which plans to add the events to the state meet next year.
“It’s really cool that all the disabled athletes can have a chance to swim at meets that they weren’t able to before and I’m really excited to see this keep growing,” said Cooper, who has a form of dwarfism known as achondroplasia.
Cooper was joined by Granville sophomore Liz Hedger and Caledonia River Valley junior Bryson Hummel. The three competed in the 50-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke, with Cooper placing second behind Hummel in the two boys races.
Hedger also has a form of dwarfism and Hummel had his right leg amputated at age 4.
Swimming before a large contingent in the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion at Ohio State, Cooper set personal bests in both events: 46.1 seconds in the 50 free and 2:03.02 in the 100 back.
Among those in attendance were his parents, Brian and Patty Cooper.
“At the end, I was a little choked up,” Patty Cooper said. “These guys work as hard as the other athletes and they put the time in, same as the other athletes. Just because their body types are different, they’re not able to have the motivational times that the other athletes can aspire to, so adding the Paralympics category adds that level of athleticism and treats them like the athletes that they are.”
Cooper doesn’t let achondroplasia deter his love for swimming or from competing and training with his teammates at Thomas. He competes in meets during the regular season with the Cardinals and was guided at district by Thomas coach Keeler Callahan.
“Lifetime bests in both events, you have to be happy with that,” Callahan said. “He attends our regular practices just like the rest of the team. I met him this season and he’s been great. He’s no different than any other kid on the team. He has great friends from (Worthington) Kilbourne and Thomas. We train together. The boys hang out with him all the time. They go to spirit parties.
“This is a great opportunity for these kids to compete at a high level that they haven’t had in the past.”
Cooper began swimming competitively in eighth grade as a member of the Worthington Swim Club. He was introduced to para competition by participating in a clinic and meet at the Bill Keating Jr. Memorial Para-Swimming Open in Cincinnati last May.
Thomas athletics director Jen Goebbel assisted in entering Cooper in the events at district and also was in attendance at Ohio State.
“This was the best of high school sports,” she said. “It was just incredible to get to see (para-swimming events) included for our athletes to represent our schools. They practice every day (and) are part of the team, and to see Alex be able to compete in that atmosphere after he has worked so hard and is such a hard-working athlete was just fantastic. It was a great day.”
Two categories have been established for student-athletes with disabilities: Category 1 is for non-ambulatory and category 2 is for ambulatory with assistance. All three competitors at Ohio State were category 2.
The OHSAA offers a similar competition in track and field, holding the seated competition in the state meet every spring since 2013. Similar to the seated events in track, the two para-swimming events were not counted toward team scores at district.
Deborah Moore, who is the senior director of compliance and sports medicine for the OHSAA and its swimming and diving administrator, said 14 athletes competed in the events statewide during district competition. Moore said Queenie Nichols, the director of U.S. Paralympic Swimming, helped the OHSAA start the competition.
The OHSAA hopes to see more athletes participating next year when Paralympic swimming makes its scheduled state meet debut at Branin Natatorium in Canton.
“It’s so necessary for us to be as inclusive as we possibly can to make opportunities available for all student-athletes,” said Jerry Snodgrass, the OHSAA’s executive director.