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Disabled swimmer, 16, has sights set on 2012 Paralympics

Reprinted with permission from the July 18th issue of the Green Bay Press Gazette. Story by Charles Davis. Photos by Evan Siegle. See the slideshow at: Disabled swimmer in a league of his own.

Jonathan Heider needs a rival.

The 16-year-old, of Green Bay, is expected to win all six races he enters at the National Junior Disability Championships next week in St. Louis. It would be an incredible accomplishment for anyone, but especially for Jonathan because he was born without any arms or legs.

Many athletes boast that they are so good, they don't have any competition, but that's actually the case for Jonathan.

"We keep hoping for someone that's going to compete with him," Jonathan's coach Glen O'Sullivan said.

Jonathan has 10 records on the junior national level.

"He's a very elite swimmer," said Dave Korst, director of competitive swimming for Green Bay YMCA.

Jonathan competes in a difficult class with limited mobility, and not many people are capable of doing that, said Kelly Behlmann, meet director for the National Junior Disability Championships. In an effort to increase his motivation, Jonathan will swim next to others who have similar times, but different disabilities.

"It would be really cool to have someone who's at the same place as I am, another me," said Jonathan, who will be a junior at Green Bay Preble High School in the fall.

The closest he came to racing someone his own age was two years ago against a swimmer 10 years his senior.

Jonathan has been swimming competitively for five years and practices about 2½ hours, four days a week. The 100-meter freestyle is his best event and he also swims the backstroke, butterfly and breastroke.

His three older siblings were involved in sports, and Jonathan said he picked it up to be like them — he wanted to belong to a team. His mom knows where his competitive drive comes from.

"Jonathan was born a survivor," said Linn Heider, who explained that he spent 15 months in a Croatian orphanage before the Heiders adopted him in 1994.

Jonathan won the 2008 Lowell Jorgensen Memorial Award, voted by teammates to the top senior swimmer with the best attitude.

"If he has a challenge, he never stops," said Jonathan's 11-year-old brother, Brennan, who is a quadruple amputee and was adopted in 1997.

Korst describes Jonathan as shy, but said he attracts the attention and admiration of parents whenever he competes at YMCA meets.

"They can tell when he goes in the water he's going to swim his heart out."

But even those events have drawbacks.

"It's hard to really get fired up and go for it when all the kids are able-bodied," Jonathan said.

At a recent practice, the top kids swam 6,000 meters — Jonathan did 2,800.

His best chance at a rival is getting faster so he can compete internationally, where there are more athletes in his class.

He tried to qualify for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, an international event for disabled athletes, but wasn't fast enough to meet time requirements. His sights are now on making the U.S. team for the 2012 games in London, which are scheduled two weeks after the Olympics.

Standing in his way is Michael DeMarco, who holds every American record in his class and is the closest rival to Jonathan.

DeMarco, 40, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and finished 20 seconds ahead of Jonathan in their closest race in May at the Cincinnati Greater Toledo Aquatic Club Disability Open.

Jonathan admits the lack of competition may prevent him from improving because he doesn't have to recover from mistakes, like if he messes up a rotation at the wall.

"I feel like sometimes I don't exactly deserve it," he said of his 30 medals and several trophies. "I'd rather finish after someone than automatically take gold every time."

"It's just a reality of our sport," said Charlie Huebner, U.S. Chief of Paralympics. "The only way we'll be successful in the future is developing depth and a larger number of participants."

Jonathan's family often has to travel as far as Detroit and Indianapolis for him to compete, and the trips have taken a financial toll.

"When a kid is diagnosed with a disability, everything is a 'No,'" Linn Heider said. "The child's parents start looking at the limitations and don't take advantage of certain opportunities."

Jonathan played basketball, tennis, sitting volleyball and softball before focusing on swimming two years ago, and he is missing out the bond that a companion could create.

As it goes, rivals often develop great and lasting friendships. "My goal is to catch up to DeMarco so I can have that rivalry going," he said.

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