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Champions for Change

Champions for Change

Noah Jaffe and Grace Lockwood have a lot in common. Both are about to be high school juniors. Both are skilled swimmers — multi-time champions, in fact. And both are awesome examples of athletes with cerebral palsy changing the future of the sports they love.

Swim was a part of the teens’ lives before CP ever came into the picture, and has continued to be a source of pride, power and passion since. “I’ve been swimming competitively for seven years,” Noah, 16, says. “I don’t really think my perspective of it has changed [since finding out I have CP].” Incidentally, swim played a role in Noah connecting with his care team and being diagnosed at the Southern Family Center for Cerebral Palsy at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego.

Noah on the go

“Noah was really fortunate — he had a swimming coach that really helped us,” recalls his mother, Kathy. “He was the one who helped us go down the path to diagnosis. We always kind of wondered if there was something a little ‘non-standard’ with Noah, because of his flexibility. As he grew into a teen, that’s when [symptoms became more apparent].” Increased muscle tone is a common factor in CP, although symptoms and severity can vary significantly from person to person. “Swimming really ended up helping him physically,” Kathy adds. “I think in the last year, it’s really helped him improve his flexibility.”

As for Grace, 15, her mother, Lanie Lockwood, says her daughter’s connection with the water has always been strong. “When she was 9, she did a summer swim program and when it ended, I told her, ‘You know, swimming doesn’t have to end with the summer. You can swim all year,’” Lanie comments. “She was thrilled to hear that. So, she started club swimming! She swam for about 10 months before she was diagnosed with CP.”

In 2014, Grace discovered she has CP when she came under the care of Rady Children’s. “I remember those first couple of visits [to the Southern Family Center] with Dr. [Henry] Chambers, Allison [Dickinson, PA-C] and Carolina [Schaber, RN], as well as my parents, explaining, quite literally, a new world for me with the diagnosis,” she remarks. “There was and is no one better than those three when it comes to championing their patients.”

“Swimming competitively is not easy,” Grace continues. “It has brought me intense performance anxiety, made me cry at results and there was a brief time when I didn’t want to do it. It’s also hard on a body, but especially with having CP. I have torn and pulled muscles, even had a stress fracture on my lower spine. In those times, I had to remind myself daily of the joys it can bring. It also helped having the [Rady] Children’s team understand being a competitive athlete with CP. I’m back to really loving swimming and pushing myself.”

Grace proudly sporting this year’s medals

As a longtime club swimmer, Grace was wary of moving on to high school and swimming for her school team, but she soon found an additional cheering section in her coaches and teammates. “Freshman year is really scary, and it proved very difficult for me to fit in at the big high school I went to last year. Being on my school’s swim team changed that for me. On my team, I stood out not only because I was a club swimmer, but because I was a club swimmer with a disability. And none of my team saw my disability as a bad thing, or a reason to push me away! It was the most relieving thing for me after I had just had a rough year.” Noah has also had a great experience representing his own high school’s team at many a meet. But this past season saw both Grace and Noah making a bigger splash than ever before, and on California’s ultimate high school sports stage: CIF championships.

A few years prior, the state-level CIF organization partnered with U.S.A. Paralympics to bring para-athletics into swimming and track competitions. From there, it soon expanded to reach the local section championships. Although Noah and Grace both swim in non-para competitions as well, this presented an exciting new opportunity. “We’d heard about the partnership through U.S. Paralympic Swimming, so we knew to ask about it when Grace started high school,” says Lanie. “It is up to CIF sections whether they choose to offer a para-competition in their section/area, [and] we are so grateful that the San Diego section … has embraced [it].” As a freshman, Grace competed in San Diego CIF’s very first para-athlete events.

“When I found out I could go to section championships and race as a para-athlete, I was ecstatic. Those championships brought me so much pride when I touched the wall and the whole crowd cheered, even though I was the only one,” she laughs (there was just one other swimmer in the para-athlete section, a boy, so both swam solo). Solo or not, Grace’s times were impressive, and she moved on to statewide championships and set a new state record.

Ahead of this year’s local championships, Grace worked as an intern with CIF “to spread the word to challenged athletes in San Diego, discussing policy and more,” she explains. “I know how much joy swimming brings me, and sharing that with others and my community was one of the proudest moments of my life.” With the help of her and other committed advocates, the San Diego competition grew to include eight athletes, one of whom was Noah. Locally, he won the 50- and 100-meter freestyle; at state championships, he won the 100-meter (and set a state time record!) and took third in the 50-meter. In addition, he caught the attention of local media, and was featured in the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Encinitas Advocate. Grace also won her local 50- and 100-meter freestyle competitions, and secured silver medals in the same categories at state levels. As an added bonus, her 50-meter time was a personal best, even above her record-setting swim the year prior. The champs also had a special guest at the San Diego competition: nurse Carolina Schaber. “It’s really cool to see what they’re doing with para-swimming in the CIF world,” says Carolina, whose daughter also has CP and is a Paralympic-level adaptive skier. “Watching these two athletes compete was amazing.”

As the para-athlete presence continues to grow in the world of competitive swimming, these teens look forward to growing right along with it. “I would like to swim in college,” expresses Noah. Grace also welcomes more athletes and more competition. “One of [this year’s state CIF swimmers] was my good friend … and she ended up beating me and my record,” she says. “But it’s okay, as we’re all helping make a mark for para-athletes.”