Feature by Tyler Remmel
HARTFORD, Wisconsin, May 24. COLLIN O'Connell is not a normal person. He is not a normal little person, either.
"You usually hear little people saying that they want to be taller," said O'Connell, a swimmer in Wisconsin.
Why does he want to be shorter, you ask? Well, that's a long story.
Collin is a 17-year-old who suffers from achondroplasia, the most common cause of dwarfism. It is the reason that he stands at 4-foot-5-inches tall.
He attends and swims for Hartford Union High School (located in Hartford, Wisc., about 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee). Outside of the high school season, he swims for the Lake Country Phoenix Swim Team.
Collin has experienced many great successes in the pool, highlighted by the fact that he currently holds three American Paralympic records (50/100 SCM freestyles, 100 SCM backstroke), and has formerly held the records in the 50 and 100 SCY freestyles. Consider that he only just picked up the sport his freshman year and his story is even more impressive.
Oh yeah, he was afraid of water throughout middle school too, which means that even in a leisure context, Collin is an infant in the pool.
He is one of the only two S6 classified swimmers that he knows of in the United States; the other is North Carolina's Michael Hughes. Both are little people, and they have raced quite a bit over the past few years.
Their relationship seems interesting. Collin speaks highly of Hughes; he actually learned about how close he was to the S6 records from Hughes. Hughes name also appears regularly in the Paralympic record books.
For a swimmer like Collin, the challenges presented during the high school season are completely different than the challenges he faces in Paralympic competitions.
The limitations of being a little person are more complex than you might think. For a little person swimmer like Collin, the fact that he has short arms and legs don't cause him the most trouble. Instead, it's the fact that his body density is just as high as a person of normal stature.
The comparison is that a normal swimmer has arms and legs twice as long to keep them at the surface and propel them forward. For a little person, it's much more difficult to maintain a body position high in the water, and even harder to move forward through the water.
In a 25-yard length, Collin could take three times as many strokes as someone else might.
What all this means is that it takes him much more energy to get from point A to point B.
During his first high school season, this difference was blatantly obvious. It was a common sight to see coach Pete Meinberg jokingly screaming at a Collin sprawled out on the floor. He couldn't make it through much more than a 50, much the less make it through an entire practice.
Collin never gave up, though, and his team never gave up on him either. By the end of his freshman year, he was completing practices. He wasn't the fastest in the pool—he might have even been the slowest—but he was a member of the team.
WITI-6 (FOX), a Milwaukee news station, did a story about Collin in February 2010. It focused on how he was accepted by the HUHS team as just one of the guys.
WITI-6 (FOX) FEATURE
Maybe that's the reason that he has improved so rapidly. In high school competition, all judgments aside, Collin is nearly out of his league. He knows that, though.
Often times, Collin's goal in races was to just beat someone. That was a lofty goal in itself.
In his junior season, though, Collin managed to beat two swimmers from other teams, feats that he's very proud of.
Paralympic competitions are much different than high school meets. At these, Collin will routinely take first or second place because there is very rarely a competitor with similar times. Even less often are times when Collin will get to compete with others in his class (like Hughes). You see, Collin will often find himself racing in composite heats with swimmers classified throughout the Paralympic spectrum. There isn't the volume of swimmers in Paralympic competition like there is on a high school or club platform.
Looking over the results from a Paralympic meet, there could be a two-minute discrepancy in a 100 between the time of the first and last place finishers.
It puts him in a tough position. On one hand, he loves having his high school teammates there to push him to get better; however, struggling to keep up during races takes a mental toll. Collin doesn't get any quantifiable reward for his high school experiences, he just gets to stand up before his next race and say, "I want to beat somebody."
On the other hand, he doesn't have steady competitors in the Paralympic meets. Even at the Dwarf Athletic Association of America 2010 National Games, there was never more than three men entered in an event; most events are empty altogether.
It's really an odd reward to win at some meets. "I could [go] my worst time [ever] and still get first place," he said.
"It's cool, but I want more…equal [competition" Collin said. "Like [in] high school, everybody else can put themselves against somebody…[for me] it's more of ‘I just want to beat my own time.' I'm still racing, but it just doesn't really feel as rewarding because you're not beating anybody else."
"You're just swimming against yourself."
Collin's dwarfism has caused him trouble outside the pool, too. A rare case, Collin had bowed legs, which began causing him pain last fall. In the beginning, the pain only bothered him sporadically like in gym class, but progressed to a point where it hurt nearly every other day. Things like walking around too much at school could cause the pain to flare up.
"I dropped out of swimming because it hurt to do anything," Collin said.
Collin hasn't been in a pool since January; thus, his steady rise to the top got put on hold.
Working closely with his doctor, Collin had leg-straightening surgery March 1 to correct the problem. "We knew I was maybe going to need it for a while," he said.
He just hoped that it wouldn't come at this particular time.
During the six-hour surgery, doctors systematically broke Collin's tibia in two places and his fibula in another, and the bones were readjusted and bolted to external fixators so that they heal straighter. It sounds like a terrifying experience, but Collin just laughs it off and plays with the fixators under his pant legs. He thinks it's cool that he can touch the bolts and feel his bones move.
This surgery was highly necessary, and you might think that there aren't any cons to a procedure like this, just by putting into perspective the pain that Collin experienced because of his bowed legs. Well, there's just one little problem that came up because of the surgery.
Picture this: you've laid an arc of string on the floor. Now, grab the ends of the string and stretch them taught, so that the string is now in a straight line. What happened to the length of the string?
It should have gotten longer; it's basic geometry. Well, Collin's lower leg was no different. After the surgery, Collin was about one-half of an inch taller than when he started. On a 4-foot-5 frame, most little people would love to gain half an inch.
The caveat is that Collin was already at the maximum height allowed for a little person S6, which means that this extra half-inch will likely bump him up to the next category, S7. You could liken this to any other swimmer aging up from the 11-12 age group to the 13-14 group.
The competition is a lot faster in the 13-14 age group because it's the age at which a lot of children begin to hit their growth spurt, and their times drop off because of it. Usually, this isn't a debilitating shift just because even the late bloomers will be able to catch up eventually.
Collin's change will be different, though. Yes, while it's possible to "catch up" in his situation, he'll never hit that "growth spurt" that made the other kids fast. His catching up will be a continual process of improving his training, just like before the surgery.
There is a huge difference in times between the S6 and S7 category, too. To give a perspective, consider the current S6 record in the 50 SCY free, 34.95. The S7 record is over eight seconds faster, currently standing at 26.79. As the distances increase, so do the time differentials. If you get up to a 200 SCY free, for instance, the record for S7s is over 44 seconds faster than the S6 record.
If you want a cross-sport reference point, think of a single-A minor league baseball player getting moved up to the majors. The potential for him to succeed is there, but he's still in a different league.
That's the half-inch difference. That's why Collin wants to be shorter.
It's not that he's looking for an easy way out; that's not the case at all. Collin has known all along that he might have gone over the cutoff height just through natural growth.
The timing of it is what's most unfortunate. Next year is the Olympic year, which means that it's a Paralympic year as well (the Paralympics are held a few weeks after the Olympics in the same venues). If he was going to have a shot at making the U.S. Paralympic Team as an S6, it just became a lot harder as an S7.
It will probably be July before Collin can even get back in the pool again, which gives him less than a year until the qualifying meet next spring.
All he can do is try though. He knows he's still young, and this won't be his last chance. Again, he's only been swimming for less than three years. Some of the feats he's accomplished would be nearly unheard of for a swimmer of normal stature.
The story of when he broke the American record in the 100 SCY freestyle sticks out in coach Meinberg's head as the most impressive. It's Jan.17, 2010, at the Wisconsin Little Ten Conference Championships. Collin had a normal event load of two individuals and two relays.
Collin's 100 freestyle was clicking that meet, not individually, but on the 4×100 freestyle relay (the final event of the meet). On Meinberg's watch, Collin swam faster than the American record in the 100 free. The touchpads failed during that heat though, and no split times were recorded. No backup timers recorded the split either, because it was a relay. It was a situation created by unfortunate timing and terrible luck.
He wanted another try, though. Considering the circumstances, the officials allowed Collin to time trial the 100 free following the awards presentations at the end of the meet. This time, there were no malfunctions. Collin set a new record with that swim, going even faster than he did on the relay earlier.
Meinberg couldn't believe it. "I wouldn't expect a fully able-bodied swimmer to be able to accomplish what [Collin] did [on] the fifth swim within a two-and-a-half hour period."
And then there's the story of the 2010 Great Lakes Regional Games. Collin arrived late to the meet, missing all but the last five minutes of the warm-up period. Even without warming up, he still managed to set American records in the 50 SCM free, 100 SCM free, and 100 SCM back.
He is eager to get the fixators off so he can get moving again. He is an active person, and hates being limited by the fixators. While he may not have been swimming whole-heartedly during this junior season, he vows to return this summer with a greater intensity than he's ever had before.
Meinberg maintains his thinking that Collin can make the 2012 Paralympic team. Collin will not be heartbroken if he does not make it though. He assumes a long career still ahead of him, and just can't wait to get back in the pool.