Jason Pipoly


The Washington Post, 2004



The Toughest Lap; Paraplegic Jason Pipoly Has His Swim Stroke -- and Goals -- Back:[FINAL Edition]
Ericka BlountThe Washington Post Washington, D.C.:Jun 27, 2004.  p. D.01 


He rolls along in his battered wheelchair with the rusty bearings and the wobbly wheels, chattering loudly into his cell phone as he passes drugstores, steakhouses and outdoor cafes, maneuvering into the street to avoid curbs.

It takes him about 15 minutes to make the mile-and-a-half trip from his apartment at 16th and Belmont streets NW to the YMCA on Rhode Island Avenue. Inside, the smell of chlorine hangs in the air. Lifeguards circle the pool in their red T-shirts and trunks while swimmers stretch their muscles on blue mats in the musty artificial heat.

After tugging on his gray swimsuit, he rolls out to the pool, easing himself from the wheelchair onto the floor. A tattoo of a wave ripples on his biceps as he scoots into the water.

He starts out easy, wearing paddles on his hands to improve his stroke and a buoy that he designed tucked between his legs to keep them afloat. Swimming at a steady pace, he stretches his arms to pull deeper, his chin tucked into his chest for better momentum, squeezing maximum distance out of every stroke. When he reaches the wall, instead of doing a flip turn, he uses one hand to maneuver himself around and push off for the next lap.

The best swimmers are generally long and lanky. He is 5 feet 4, with short arms. But he has learned to make the most of what he's got.

He waits for that moment of Zen when he isn't fighting the heaviness of the water anymore, when his body rolls effortlessly, his arms stroke perfectly in sync and it feels like he was born in the water. He remembers when his trunk would twist, his legs would kick and the movement came naturally. But now he has only his arms to make it happen. Reaching Zen is harder now.

At age 6, Jason Pipoly was already pushing the edge, his father recalls, skiing black-diamond slopes in the Rocky Mountains near their home in Denver. At 11, he made his first attempt at swimming the English Channel, coming within four miles of the beaches of France, according to press accounts at the time. In college in California, he took up surfing and slept on the dunes of Ocean Beach. Tried road racing, too, he says, in Bandol, where the French Grand Prix was once held.

So it wasn't really strange that he woke up early one winter morning in Colorado, where he was living six years ago, and decided that he had to see the sun rise over a frozen reservoir in the Rockies. He started his maroon Saturn and pointed it toward the horizon. He headed down the winding road that follows the Fryingpan River, driving fast, just for the thrill of it.

He doesn't remember seeing the icy patch on the road. As he rounded a turn, the car started to slide sideways. Instead of turning into the skid, as he knew to do, his reflexes took over and forced him to turn the other way. As the tires left the road and the car started to flip down the embankment, Pipoly saw a tree coming in his direction. He remembers closing his eyes.

"When I opened my eyes I said, 'Oh, I'm fine, I made it through,' " he says now, jiggling a prescription bottle, his nails bitten down to nubs. The car landed on top of a tree in a ravine. Pipoly tried to move his legs but couldn't feel them. He tried to relax. He was rapidly losing blood. He was alone.

He wasn't sure how long he was there before the rescue team arrived. When they found him, his body temperature had dropped below 92 degrees. They cut him from his car and airlifted him to the hospital in Grand Junction. For 21/2 days, he was strapped to a steel table that was rolled from side to side to ensure that his blood didn't clot and that his lungs wouldn't collapse.

Once he pushed the call bell to ask the nurse to stop the table, if only for a minute. She stopped it, but left him lying on his left side screaming in pain. He didn't ring for help again. After surgery on the third day he learned he would be paralyzed from the chest down for life. He was 28 years old.

Dressed in a gray T-shirt, tan shorts and black-and-white high- top boxing shoes, Pipoly is alternately intent and bored as he sits at the back of the hotel conference room and listens to a manufacturer rep's presentation about orthotics and prosthetics.

Two hours into the program, his head nods, and then finally he is called to speak to the audience of physicians, therapists, nurses and case managers. He is there to give his testimony about the reciprocating gait orthosis, a device made by the company, Hanger, that brought him here today.

The device, which helps him stand and even take a few steps with the help of a walker, primarily is for exercise. Because of his spinal cord injury, he is dependent on his wheelchair.

Pipoly fidgets in his chair, trying to hold his right leg still as it bounces up and down sporadically. These muscle spasms are a daily part of his reality now.

He opens his talk with a joke about a farmer and his three- legged pig to warm up the crowd as they eat dinner, but it isn't until he begins to talk about some of his struggles after the accident that the sounds of forks clanging against plates stop.

"In the hospital I was thinking about all the things I wouldn't be able to do, and I remember pushing that morphine drip button just as much for that fear as for the pain that I was feeling," he says. "I would wake up and all that fear would just come down on me and all I wanted to do was go back to sleep again."

Even after his rehab, when he was supposed to resume his normal life, he would go to pull himself up from the bed and the realization would sink in and he would lie flat, staring at the ceiling.

Sometimes he would go for days without sleeping, he recalls, because of the muscle spasms in his legs. Some days he would miss work at a photo lab and stay in bed, daydreaming about all of the things he used to do. He would flip the remote and drift in and out of sleep, getting out of bed just to go to the bathroom.

Eventually he learned to drive again. Then he would make the short trip from his apartment to the liquor store, plop his money on the counter and retreat to his apartment to spend the day downing Left Hand Beer. Sometimes he smoked weed. Other days he snorted cocaine.

He never reached the proverbial bottom, he says wryly, until he ran out of drugs. For almost a year his priority was escaping the daily realities of his life.

The first Christmas after his accident he went to his mother's house. He was quiet and morose, showing little interest in anything but the television. Out of desperation, she took out an old videotape and popped it into the VCR. It was a tape of Jason, age 11, on "The Tonight Show."

"He almost made it across and he said he is going back to try to swim it again!" Johnny Carson tells the audience, by way of introducing the young Pipoly. In the interview, he recalls how the crowds had cheered and the television lights had followed his progress. He describes how close he came to matching the feat his father had accomplished as a grown man. He seems undaunted, determined to try again, determined to succeed.

After the holiday, Pipoly returned to San Antonio, where he had moved to be near his father. He started thinking about the sport he had drifted away from not long after his attempt to swim the English Channel. He started thinking about the water. A year and a half after his accident, Pipoly decided to try to swim again.

When he finally got up the courage to get into the pool, he found that all he could do was float on his back and move his arms around for about 30 minutes. He went home in tears. He went back the next day and stayed in the water for 45 minutes. After a week he started to swim on his stomach. Within a short time, he could swim a dozen pool lengths.

Three years later he reached the shore of Wissant, France. He had conquered the 21-mile English Channel in 13 hours 48 minutes. There were no camera crews. No cheering crowds. But a representative of the Channel Swimming Association was there to certify Jason Pipoly as the first paraplegic from the United States to successfully swim the Channel.

A year later, he became the first paraplegic to cross the 21- mile Catalina Channel, according to the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation. He gave up on the return leg of the swim, after spending 24 hours in the currents, fighting off physical and mental exhaustion.

For weeks after his accident, Pipoly had avoided the slight curb at the end of his driveway. Then finally he forced himself to confront it.

"I fell right out of the wheelchair, right on my face while my wheelchair is rolling down the street," he recalls. "This guy pulls up and he is totally freaked out." Then he saw that Pipoly was laughing, and "He's like, 'You nut!' I was laughing because I was thinking about how afraid I was."

It was the first time Pipoly had fallen out of his wheelchair. He's done it "a thousand times since then," he says.

This spring, Pipoly moved to the District to train with his old coach, Mark Joyner, swimming coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic pentathlon team, for a 24-mile race across Tampa Bay. He had trained all winter and was ready. Then one night, after returning from dinner to the townhouse he shares with Joyner, Pipoly had paused at the top of the stairs when one of the wheels on his chair started backsliding. Before he knew it he was tumbling down, bouncing on almost every step until he hit the bottom.

He was rushed to Howard University Hospital, where doctors splinted his broken left leg. Five days later, surgeons at Sibley Memorial Hospital put a rod in the leg, from the knee to the hip.

It would have been understandable if Pipoly quit at that point, but Joyner said that is not who he is.

"He has a high threshold for pain -- his ability to tolerate discomfort, excessive training or overexertion," says Joyner. When Pipoly was younger, Joyner says, "when the other kids were fatigued he was always wanting to do more."

So with the Tampa swim out of reach, Pipoly began looking for a new challenge.

Then he thought back to his accident. He never reached the reservoir that day.

Last month, his leg still in a cast, Pipoly began training again.

He would return to the Ruedi Reservoir and swim the 17 miles across it. The water, he knows, will be breathtakingly cold. The altitude -- more than 10,000 feet above sea level -- will make it even harder.

It will be a tough place for him to go for other reasons as well. But he hopes to somehow find the person who called 911 that February day in 1998 and saved his life. And thank him or her.

Pipoly laughs now at the dull ache that engulfed him as the lanky 11-year-old kid who sobbed uncontrollably on the beach after failing to swim the English Channel.

Now he's back at the Y, putting in 6,500 meters a day -- more than most able-bodied swimmers can imagine.

A group of kids comes out of the locker room with bare feet and lunch bags.

Pipoly drags his good leg out of the water and then pulls his broken one, still swollen, out of the shallows. "How do I look?" he shouts with a wide grin to his girlfriend, Vanessa Vance, watching from her wheelchair.

"You look good!" one of the regulars shouts back to him.

"I feel good," he says, resting his body against the wall.

If he can keep going, he figures, swim the reservoir, then he can do even tougher swims.

And find that Zen again.