Joe Underwood is a freshman at Desert Vista High School with a lot going on. At the age of 14, Underwood is a nationally recognized competitive swimmer, as well as a multi-sport athlete who just happens to be a paraplegic with Spina bifida, a medical condition that has left him paralyzed from the calf down.
Since the age of 4, Underwood has been swimming with encouragement from his family, coaches and teammates. However, before he found his niche with swimming, Underwood tried his hand at bowling. He said that after bowling for awhile his mother asked him if he would like to try swimming, and he has been making his way through the water ever since.
Underwood said that it was the competitiveness, and the people he meets, that really drew him to swimming and made him want to continue.
Nowadays, Underwood swims year-round on a USA swimming club team for able-bodied swimmers, as well as for the DV swim team during its season, and also competes at other various swim meets throughout the year.
Since December of 2006, Underwood has been swimming at Swim Neptune, a USA club swimming facility that strives to teach people of all ages the fundamentals of swimming, and also welcomes swimmers with disabilities, according to its website.
Coach Megan Harden, Underwood's coach at Swim Neptune, said that he is currently the only Arizona resident who competes at the U.S. Paralympics swimming meets, and that he hopes these meets will lead him to his goal of making the U.S. Paralympics swim team before the 2012 London Paralympics Games.
Harden said that Underwood is extremely dedicated, and loves coming to practice.
"He's definitely one of the key players on the team," she said.
Harden also noted that when Underwood first started at Swim Neptune he said that he did not want to be separated from the other swimmers, and wanted to do everything that they had to do.
"It seems like he isn't disabled at all," Harden said.
She also mentioned in a press release that Underwood's best stroke is the 100-meter backstroke. Harden said that because of Underwood's Spina bifida, which causes him not to be able to kick his legs, he has to use a lot of his upper body strength, which is essential in the backstroke.
Harden said that she doesn't think that Underwood's disability affects him mentally.
"It doesn't really faze him," Harden said.
Underwood practices every day of the week, except Sundays, and meets with his high school team to practice most mornings before school, starting at 5:15 a.m., and he swims at Swim Neptune most evenings. Underwood also has high school swimming meets every Thursday, and so far this season his team has won both meets they've competed in.
Over the years, Underwood has been swimming competitively with the Arizona Disabled Sports, and also with the Mesa Association of Sports for the Disabled.
When Underwood isn't swimming, he is playing wheelchair basketball with the Junior Banner Wheelchair Suns team. Every Monday from September to April, he practices with his team, and also participates in five different tournaments.
This year is Underwood's sixth year of playing wheelchair basketball, and he said that he really enjoys playing the sport.
"I like it almost as much as swimming," Underwood said.
He also occasionally volunteers at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, where he talks to kids with new disabilities due to spinal cord damage.
Underwood's dad, Gary, said that he usually will go in during the time of the patient's spinal cord rehab and talk to them about being in a wheelchair, and also share tips and tricks to living their life with a wheelchair.
In 2008, Underwood competed in the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training's annual Alcatraz swim, finishing only 30 minutes later than most able-bodied swimmers his age.
Harden said that the Alcatraz swim was a huge accomplishment for Underwood, and that he inspired other swimmers at Swim Neptune to compete the following year.
Underwood competed Friday in an open disability Paralympics meet in Santa Clara, Calif. In December, he will travel to Toronto, Canada, to swim in the Canada/America Paralympics division swimming meet.
Continually, Underwood is training in preparation for trying out for the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team. The next team qualifying meet is in March 2011 in Minneapolis, Minn. Underwood will be traveling there to compete for a spot on the team.
When asked if there was anything he would like to say to others who are disabled, and may be weary of trying out different sports, Underwood said that just because a person has a wheelchair, doesn't mean that they can't do what others who aren't in wheelchairs can do.
The Underwoods have set up an Athletic Development Fund for their son through Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA, which helps to pay for training and travel expenses for U.S. Paralympics swimming, and also for Underwood's quest for London in 2012. To donate to Underwood's fund, go to www.wsusa.org and click on "Athlete Development Fund" under support, and then scroll down to Underwood's name at the bottom. All donations are tax deductible.
Chelsea Brown is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. She is a senior at Arizona State University.