Blind swimmer competes in Paralympics

Phil Scholz arrived late for the fall semester at Loyola College in Maryland, but not without some experiences that he can incorporate into his combined major of global studies and communications.

A sophomore from Mt. Sinai, N.Y., Scholz was the only American swimmer to compete in the S11 category, those who are totally blind, at the 2008 Paralympics.

The international event for athletes with disabilities followed the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Scholz swam in the same Water Cube where Michael Phelps made history, and he passed time in the Olympic Village, making friends from several continents.

“I was exposed not only to China and its athletes, but to people from around the world,” Scholz said. “In the ready room before one race, I brushed arms with a guy from Poland. He spoke some English, so we talked up until our race. In the Olympic Village, I met a volleyball player from Iraq. We talked about our countries. That was interesting.”

Scholz was on the road for nearly a month, spending 10 days at an American training camp in Okinawa, Japan, before the U.S. team arrived in Beijing.

“I was still in the States when Michael (Phelps) won his eighth gold medal,” Scholz said. “I rely on the commentary to follow a race. With my mother screaming at the TV, it was hard to hear.”

Scholz was disappointed that he didn’t medal in Beijing, but finished fifth in the 400-meter freestyle, set an American record in the 50 butterfly, and returned home inspired by a swift rival from Spain and the prospect of competing at a 2010 international competition in the Netherlands.

On Sept. 22, before making his first appearance in a classroom this fall, Scholz first joined a swim practice at Loyola College. His coach there is Brian Loeffler, who attended the Paralympics.

Scholz competes for the Greyhounds in intercollegiate meets, as the NCAA allows for the use of the “tapper,” a tool for blind swimmers. A coach or support person stands on the pool deck, using a tennis ball at the end of a 5-foot pole to warn swimmers as they near a wall.

“I count strokes, but I’m always going to have a tapper,” Scholz said. “That teamwork is part of the sport. The tappers wear flip-flops, or else they’re going to have wet socks and shoes. One coach learned the hard way that I produce a lot of waves.”

Asked to describe his best moment representing Loyola, Scholz mentioned last December, when he broke 20 minutes for the 1,650-yard freestyle. In April, he won four events at the U.S. Paralympics in Minneapolis, which served as the national trials for the Paralympics.

That led to Scholz throwing out the first pitch at a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. More recognition will come next month, when Scholz participates in an Oct. 4 “Parade of Gold” for Maryland-based athletes who went to Beijing. Two days later, he’ll join America’s Olympians and Paralympians being honored at the White House.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.