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Paraplegic swimmer at home in water
Catalina journey is his newest goal
By Alexandria Sage

ASSOCIATED PRESS September 1, 2003 LOS ANGELES He tried to swim the English Channel before he lost use of his legs. He didn't make it. Twenty-one years later, as a paraplegic, he tried again and finished with energy to spare.

Jason Pipoly was 11 years old and four miles short of finishing the channel swim when he ran out of stamina and his father had to pull him out of the water. Shortly after that, he appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and vowed to try it again.

But the 32-year-old San Antonio, Texas, resident broke his back in 1998 when his car hit a tree in Colorado. An avid skier, Pipoly suddenly found himself unable to walk and so afraid of the future he'd make himself fall asleep to forget. While in the hospital, however, he discovered the therapy pool.

Last year, Pipoly became the first U.S. paraplegic to cross the 22-mile English Channel, swimming it in 13 hours and 48 minutes.

This week, he'll try to swim from Long Beach to Santa Catalina Island and back, a total of 42 miles.

"I know I can swim there," Pipoly said Thursday. "Why not swim back as well? When I swam the English Channel ... I was in no way near quitting mode. I could easily have swum another seven hours."

Pipoly has a fine arts degree, but these days, life revolves around his training. He wakes up at 4 a.m. to swim at Boerne Lake, near San Antonio, Texas, then goes to work at a pool and spa company.

He comes home exhausted and makes himself dinner "I get it palatable," he said. He'd like to have a service dog and, maybe someday, a wife and kids. Meanwhile, he often visits his father, who lives nearby and once swam the English Channel himself.

Pipoly considers his quiet life "bonus time" and says the only thing he fears is not trying something new.

"My definition of a hero is someone who lets go of their preconceived abilities," he said. "Then they try their hardest and realize their full potential."

Pipoly, who gets around in a wheelchair, will use a small flotation device to keep his legs from dragging during the anticipated 24-hour Catalina swim. And he'll wear leg straps to reduce severe spasms he says he gets in cold water.

The extra equipment may cost Pipoly recognition by swimming organizations that don't recognize flotation devices.

"I can understand the rules," Pipoly said. "You don't want someone strapping a motor to their butt and saying, 'I swam the Catalina Channel hooray for me.' "

During the swim, his sister, niece, cousin and best friend will track Pipoly in a boat chartered by his sponsor, Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics of Bethesda, Md.

The swimmer knows after three hours in the ocean, he'll tire. Then, he said, it'll feel like "a pain dial, slowly turning up." To combat it, he says, he'll visualize a favorite memory of skiing through fresh powder until his endorphins kick in again.

Pipoly, whose heroes include Lance Armstrong and Christopher Reeve, is working on an autobiography. Someday, he'd like to tour the country as an inspirational speaker raising money for neurological research. The upcoming swim is one dream among many.

"All this is in preparation for being a big wave surfer," he said. "It's my dream, and it was my dream before, to one day surf big waves."

Pipoly has been practicing standing and walking for short periods using a custom-designed brace made by his sponsor. At first, just putting it on made him sweat. Now it's getting easier.

He doesn't know if science will one day get him on that surfboard, but says that's hardly the point.

"I'm trying to get people to say, hey, first start dreaming and then go after them," Pipoly said. "Whether or not I make it isn't what the message is about."









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