Joe Underwood feels this is his year. His times have never been better and he is in the best shape of his life.

The 15-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills resident is training to qualify for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. In less than two weeks, he will travel to North Dakota and try to make time in four events — the 50-meter butterfly, the 100-meter freestyle and backstroke, and the 400-meter freestyle.

His training regimen is tough, he currently works out five days per week at about two hours each day. That amount most likely increase over the summer, through the Paralympic time trials and beyond, because school is out, he said.

Underwood, 16, will be a junior at Desert Vista High School next school year and currently competes with Swim Neptune. He has swam competitively since he was 8 years old.

Underwood has spina bifida and complications have taken away most of the feeling below his waist. He has had “14 or 15” surgeries, according to his dad, Gary Underwood, but that hasn’t stopped him from competing in international swimming competitions and continuing to raise expectations for himself.

“My times were better this year than they have ever been,” Underwood said. “I just feel really good.”

The Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center is his new training ground. When the pool opened earlier this month at the state-of-the-art facility for people with disabilities, Underwood and his family attended and met Ahwatukee Foothills trainer Donna Adler. Adler has been working Underwood out in a program called AquaStretch.

“The goal is to increase the range of motion,” Adler said.

For the past few years, Underwood has also worked out with Megan Harden, who is now the aquatic coordinator with the new fitness center. She has worked with Paralympic athletes for 10 years.

“He has gone to international meets and he is working ridiculously hard,” Harden said. “I am so proud of him. What I tell people is that everyone is like a puzzle. You just have to find the right piece.”

The Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center, 5031 E. Washington St. in Phoenix, is open to people with disabilities, including military veterans and their families. In addition to the pool, there are in-door basketball courts, a weight room with modified weights, training rooms and more. For more information, visit or call (602) 386-4566.

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