This New Year and New Decade call for some celebration! We wanted to start 2020 off with good vibes by celebrating all of our Underdogs from the Are You an Underdog Campaign we ran this past Fall. Check out each Underdog's unique and challenging story below and leave a comment to share your admiration.
Meet underdog, Bryce Kirk, from Sedona Race Pace Club in AZ. Bryce has been faced with numerous physical obstacles all his life. At the age of seven, Bryce was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder and a physical disability that made it difficult to perform activities that require him to cross the midline of his body. Later, Bryce was diagnosed with Dupe 15q syndrome, which hurt his ability to sustain muscular strength and caused him to tire easily.
For the longest time, Bryce was swimming in a group with kids his age but not his skill level. One of the coaches for the younger group, Lauren Robinson, suggested that Bryce come to her younger group where he would get more attention and support. Bryce flourished.
About a year and a half ago, Bryce committed to a diet, more stroke technique work, and higher intensity workouts. In that time since Bryce made those commitments, he went from B or slower times to AA and AAA times, just on the cusp of qualifying for Regionals.
Bryce knows what he is capable of and works hard to be better than he was yesterday, every day. Thanks to the support of his coaches Sean Emery and Lauren Robinson, Bryce continues to grow and develop, and the best is yet to come for this underdog!
Meet underdog, Emma Pajtash, a 15-year-old swimmer from Merril in Merril, WI. Over the last couple of years, Emma has been faced with numerous setbacks and disappointments, but she persevered and continues to excel.
Two years ago, as a seventh-grader, Emma suffered from some nagging pain in her stomach, which turned out to be a large mass on her right adrenal gland. Emma had surgery to remove the tumor and now had to recover from surgery and a 10-inch incision in her side. She had a goal of swimming at the Midwest Regionals in Minneapolis, so she got back in the pool within two-weeks of surgery and was able to bounce back to compete at the meet.
A little over a year later, Emma was having problems with her foot. She went in to see the doctor and eventually a podiatrist to find out that she had sesamoiditis, a broken sesamoid bone in her foot. With no clue as to how this happened, all Emma could do was try to recover. She was placed in a boot for three weeks and then casted and unable to put weight on it. Unfortunately, this was not enough and Emma had to have more surgery, taking her out of the water again!
Sometime after that, Emma went to a swim camp to work on her breaststroke, her favorite stroke. At the clinic, another swimmer jumped into the pool on Emma’s head and she got a concussion. Yet again, Emma had to take time out of the water to recover.
Not only did Emma struggle with her physical abilities over the last few years, she struggled mentally. With high goals set, she struggled not being able to chase those and constantly having to take time away from swimming. Despite all of these setbacks, though, Emma persisted and worked her butt off, and even found some success amid all of those disappointments.
Meet underdog, Corey Smith, a college swimmer at Eastern Michigan University. Corey’s freshman year he was the team's 7th or 8th backstroker. The summer following freshman year, Corey had talked with his teammate Logan a lot about how mentally tough it was to go to practice when he was struggling. He contemplated quitting altogether. Corey took the rest of the summer off and came back his sophomore season with a fresh outlook. Logan had convinced Corey that maybe it was time to add a new event to his lineup and take some of that pressure off of backstroke – Corey was going to take on the mile.
After a few months of trying to convince the coaches to let Corey swim the mile at their midseason meet, but they eventually agreed. Corey didn’t have the most amazing mile, but it was his first mile and it was a great swim. Still, they had to convince the coaches that this was a good move. After three more months of distance training, the conference roster was announced and Corey didn’t make it the competition squad but made the exhibition roster – he still had a chance to race and prove himself.
His first event of the meet, the 400 IM, did not go well, but he tried to stay positive and focus on the rest of the meet. The last day came around which had both the 200 back and the mile. First up was the 200 back, his top event in high school, which was a disappointing swim for Corey. He warmed down and got ready for the mile. Before this meet, Corey’s best time was 16:27. Corey dropped 39 seconds (15:48) making him the fastest miler on the team that year!
Corey was in a dark place, ready to give up, but with the support of his team and coaches, he evolved into one of the best swimmers and teammates on the team. His comeback was an inspiration to the entire team and he continues to push everyone else to be their best!
Meet underdog, Elijah Haight, a 13-year-old swimmer from TEAM in Tampa, FL. Elijah was adopted from China when he was two and a half years old. He was born with radial club hands, no thumbs, and a locked left arm. Despite his physical challenges, Elijah swims five days a week and hits the gym twice a week. He challenges himself not only in his daily training but also by the events he races – 500 FR, 400 IM, 100 FL, 200 BK, & 100 BR are his favorites! Elijah has brought change to Florida Swimming, presenting the need for para-swimming representation at high levels of competition. Elijah’s determined spirit and work ethic proves that you can do anything, even if the world thinks you can’t. He is a hero to his teammates and his family.
Meet underdog, Cailey Peele, a 13-year-old swimmer from Team Millennium in River Forest, IL. More than five years ago, Cailey was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and consequently, she suffers from chronic regular joint swelling, pain and stiffness and the side effects of her treatments take an even greater toll on her. No matter if she is feeling good or not, Cailey always works hard and always races. She could easily justify giving less than her best, but she never does, and both her coaches and teammates recognize this. Cailey does not let her arthritis define her and she hopes to spread that message to others; she is involved with the arthritis foundation doing some advocacy work and mentoring other kids.
Meet underdog, Sarah Bofinger, known to many as Mergoddess. Sarah was born with Hip Dysplasia. She has had seven surgeries and has been told that she will never accomplish much, yet she persisted. Sarah recently started competing in the para-swimming scene and has goals to compete in the Olympics in 2020. Sarah is a role model athlete, mental health advocate, clean living believer, and she sets an example for many by her hard work and inspirational spirit. Many people nominated Sarah saying she deserves the recognition because they admire her hard work, but also because they appreciate the positive impact Sarah has had on their lives.
Meet underdog, Jacob Beyer, from Goodyear, AZ. Jacob suffers from a spinal disorder that causes a curve in the upper spine that gets progressively worse as he grows. Every day, Jacob’s spine, neck, and head are not aligned correctly, causing extra pressure and discomfort and making it difficult to most things swimming requires like streamline, rotate, maintain good body position in the water. In addition to that, Jacob and his family face some challenges outside of the pool that he refuses to let affect his swimming and schoolwork. Fueled by his determination and drive, Jacob continues to drop time and maintains a 4.0 GPA!
Meet underdog, Sawyer Graczyk, a 17-year old swimmer from Conejo Simi Swim Club in Moorpark, CA. Sawyer started club swimming later than most, at age 13, and has had to work harder to catch up to most of the swimmers his age. Sawyer has heard a lot of “can’ts” and “no’s” in his life, but he never gives up. He’s even switched club teams several times until he found a coach who sees him for his potential and as a valuable member of the team. Sawyer is not the fastest swimmer on his team, but he is 100% committed and doesn’t get discouraged. For the past three years, Sawyer has had his eyes set on qualifying for several senior meets and he finally qualified a few weeks ago, and IN THE MILE!! That race takes heart!
Meet underdog, Maggie Scherder, a 17-year-old swimmer from PAWW Swim Club in Peoria, IL. Maggie is an exceptional swimmer who happens to have Downs Syndrome, oh, and she is a world champion! All season long, Maggie competes against USA Swimming and High School swimmers who don’t have the same challenges she has. She never lets this discourage her, though. She is not only one of the hardest workers on the team, but she is also a great teammate and representative for her team. Maggie competed in Italy this past summer as part of the USA Down Syndrome Swimming Team where she won three gold medals and four silver medals! She works extremely hard and is always smiling and having fun. She loves being a part of a team and can always be heard cheering on her teammates.
Meet underdog, Ethan Haynes, a swimmer from Tsunami Swim Team in Kansas City, MO. Ethan has autism and a chromosomal deletion which delayed a lot of his development. He started swimming competitively when he was 12 and it was a challenging sport to pick up. Thanks to patient and supportive coaches, Ethan’s passion for the sport has flourished. His positivity, willingness to learn, kindness, and hard work make Ethan an excellent teammate. He has surprised his coaches, his teammates, and many parents with his progress and positive spirit. Ethan is a junior in high school who recently made a high school state consideration cut and now has his sights set on the next level!
Meet underdog, Ashlyn Reidhead, a 17-year old swimmer from Pitchfork Aquatics in Mesa, AZ. Ashlyn has struggled with her health these last two years, suffering from an autoimmune disease and hypothyroidism. There are times when Ashlyn’s body just shuts down, sometimes preventing her from finishing her practices or even races! With the support of and care from her mother and nana, Ashlyn has been able to push through her personal challenges, work hard in the pool and in school, and learned how to better manage her autoimmune disease. Ashlyn has a fighting spirit and a passion for swimming that runs deep. She wanted us to give a special mention to her mom and nana who work so hard to pay her medical bills, take her to and from the doctor, and help Ashlyn be her best.
Meet underdog, Florence Kock, from Ohio. Florence started swimming at the University of Toledo in January 2019. Excited to be on the team and start her first season of college swimming, Florence first had to do a physical. She was told she needed to get shoulder surgery before being cleared to swim, and there was a possibility that she would never swim again. Several months later, Florence came out of a successful surgery, determined to get back in the water. She was recovering faster than the doctor expected and by Fall 2019, Florence was cleared to get back in the water. With a few months under her belt, she is already gaining on her best times! Surgery had the potential to be career-ending but Florence embraced this challenge head-on and is now better than ever!
Meet underdog, Valerie Yankauskas. Valerie grew up in age group swimming, but sometime in the next 40 years, Valerie got slammed by an irrational fear of swimming after an accident that caused some collateral damage. Although she couldn’t bear to get in the water herself, Valerie became skilled support for open water swimming as a kayak pilot of individuals, kayak support for swim camps, and crew onboard boats for various marathon swims. Over this past year, Valerie started submerging again and successfully completed the 2.8-mile Pre-swim at the Swim the Suck. Valerie gave so much support to a sport she was wistfully apart from and took the inspiration of the swimming community to get back in the water. Now, Valerie has goals to join a Masters team and train for the entire Swim the Suck next year!