To watch Brendan Driscoll swim a 500-yard freestyle race is to witness crowd dynamics in action. The 500 is a grueling distance, covering 20 lengths of a 25-yard-long pool. But as Driscoll hits the wall midway through lap 10 and makes his last turn for home, a cheer wells up among his teammates, then his opponents, and then invariably, the spectators.
By the time he finishes, the cheers have become a roar, which might seem odd to the uninitiated, since he is often last in his heat. Until he pulls himself out of the pool. Then, the explanation is as clear as the sparkling waters he has just emerged from.
An eighth-grader on the Manchester-Essex High swim team competing against able-bodied athletes four years his senior, Driscoll does not have a leg below his left knee.
“In the beginning, it was, ‘Wow, look at him,’ ’’ said Manchester-Essex coach Katie Garvin.
“But now the older kids who have been on the team with him since last year, there’s that quiet respect. They don’t treat him differently. He’s just one of the team.’’
The reaction is more pronounced from outsiders at meets.
“They’re like, ‘Wow, this kid is incredible,’ ’’ added Garvin. “Because he’s competitive. That’s the thing. He’s not just swimming the JV races and the short stuff. He’s right in there. And he’s gutsy. In that respect, people are impressed.’’
Asked if he considers his condition a handicap, the 14-year-old Driscoll shrugged his sturdy shoulders, before adding: “I’ve lived with it my whole life, so no, not really.’’
Driscoll was born with a congenital condition in which the tibia and fibula of his left leg did not develop. When he was 5, doctors at Children’s Hospital performed a knee disarticulation on the leg to preserve the growth plate and ensure that his left thigh would develop normally.
“I always remember the little boy who was frustrated at the dining room table after school,’’ said his mother, Ginger.
“All he wanted to do was sports. He just wanted to run. And now he’s swimming. We’re so far beyond [those early days] now. I feel so grateful for everybody who helped him to get where he is, and where he’s going. But he’s the one driving this. It’s his determination that has really been the difference.’’
Driscoll’s life took a dramatic turn at age 8, when he received his first running prosthetic from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. The family’s insurance wouldn’t cover the expensive apparatus (the carbon “foot’’ for the high-tech Ossur prosthetic alone can cost more than $4,000), and the foundation stepped in.
“It was life-changing for our entire family,’’ said his mother. “We pretty much live and breathe CAF around here, because they just changed the whole direction for Brendan. I never thought I’d be the mother of an athlete.’’
Her son, however, knew that being an athlete was exactly what he wanted to be.
“It was really hard for me, before I was 8 and I got this [prosthetic],’’ he said. “I was always annoyed because I couldn’t run as fast as everyone else. It means a lot to me now that I can keep up with people, and be good at sports.’’
As a youngster, Driscoll started competing in track events, setting age-group records in the 100-, 200-, and 400-yard races. When the triathlon bug bit, it meant he would need to get in the pool. Which he did, with a vengeance. He started swimming with the YMCA-affiliated North Shore Sharks, and then tried out for the Manchester-Essex squad as a seventh-grader.
“He was never a toddler or a kindergartner with an attention problem,’’ said his mother. “He’d get an idea that he was going to do something, and he would just get it done. So he’s all about this. He’s set this goal that he’s going to be a Paralympic athlete some day. He sees the path; he knows it.’’
Driscoll stands 5-foot-6 and a fit 126 pounds, looking vastly different from the chunky youngster who got a new lease on life six years ago. In addition to the Manchester-Essex team, he practices with the North Shore Swim Club, competes for the New Jersey-based Navigators Paralympic Sport Club, and is a member of the US Paralympic Emerging Sport program based in Colorado Springs.
In meets for disabled athletes last year, he set age-group records in the 50-yard and 100-yard backstroke.
But because of the scarcity of disabled events locally, Driscoll’s only option for regular competition is with his club and school teams.
“At North Shore swim meets, where kids have been swimming for years and they’ve got really good times, Brendan doesn’t win. He always loses,’’ said his mother. “But it’s not going to stay that way.’’
Her optimism is well-founded, given the dramatic improvements that her son has made in his times in the past year alone. Garvin has seen it as well.
“He’s put in the time and the work, and he’s now one of the stronger kids on the team,’’ said the third-year coach.
Still, Garvin says she doesn’t make any exceptions for Driscoll, specifically because she wants him to feel like he is no different from anyone else on the team.
“I’m a guidance counselor, so my philosophy is everybody is the same, because everybody’s got challenges,’’ added the coach.
“Everybody’s got something to deal with. Sometimes it’s noticeable, sometimes it’s quantifiable, something you can see. And sometimes it’s not.
“We don’t change things around for him. Just as if any kid were hurting, or having a rough day, we’re not crazy intense. . . . He’s not here to be set apart. If he wanted to be set apart, he wouldn’t be on a team.’’
Garvin says that Driscoll has flourished, both physically and socially, because the team offers such a welcoming environment.
Manchester-Essex captain Dustin Ferzacca readily agrees with his coach’s approach.
“We don’t treat him any differently, or any easier, than the other kids,’’ he said. “We’re going to work him just as hard as everybody else.’’
On the pool deck, Driscoll dispenses with his high-tech prosthetic and gets around with the help of a pair of Lofstrand crutches. On the starting blocks and in the water, whether at meets or during practice, he uses no aids.
“He’s in the fastest lane, swimming with the fastest kids on the team,’’ said Ferzacca. “For an eighth-grader, that’s amazing. For an eighth-grader without a leg, that’s just outstanding. He’s twice the athlete that anybody else on this team is.’’
Driscoll relishes the challenge.
“He’s not that animated, but I remember him telling me, ‘Mom, you have no idea how it feels to go from being the worst one in the pool to the best one in the pool,’ ’’ said Ginger Driscoll. “And he’s having fun.’’
And “fun,’’ in Brendan Driscoll’s world, often means taking on the toughest tasks.
“He wants to do the 500. He wants to do the IM [individual medley], even though some of those strokes, the non-freestyle strokes like the butterfly and the breaststroke [where he has to utilize his upper body more], are more challenging for him,’’ said Garvin.
“His backstroke and his freestyle are obviously his strengths, but he’s not resistant to anything. If anything, he says, ‘Why wouldn’t I do those things?’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, absolutely. Have at it, man.’ ’’
In a sport where most participants concentrate more on competing against themselves, aiming to better their previous times, the Essex teen has other goals.
“He is focused on the winning,’’ said Megan Simmons, a coach with the North Shore Swim Club, laughing. “He won’t even want to know his time.’’
Driscoll is just about to come into his own, said his mother.
“He gets frustrated when he comes in last in high-end able-bodied swim meets,’’ she said.
“And I tell him, ‘Look around you. Sure, you didn’t win the 500 last night at the Gordon College pool. But guess what? You just turned 14. These guys are all seniors and juniors.’ He doesn’t get that part, so it keeps him humble.’’
Clearly, the young swimmer doesn’t see obstacles. Only opportunities.
“My long-term goal is to go to the Paralympics, and to do an IronMan Triathlon,’’ he said. “With enough practice, anything’s possible.’’
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.