Open Water Paralyzed six years ago, Jason Pipoly is back in the swim and setting long-distance records

July 26, 2004
July 26, 2004

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July 26, 2004

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Open Water Paralyzed six years ago, Jason Pipoly is back in the swim and setting long-distance records

On a summer day the 15-mile ferry ride across Long Island Sound
from Port Jefferson, N.Y., to Bridgeport, Conn., can be a
pleasant interlude for commuters and vacationers. On Aug. 7 the
crossing will be a little more taxing for Jason Pipoly. The
36-year-old Denver native plans to swim across the Sound to raise
money for cancer research. The feat would be an impressive one
for any swimmer, but for Pipoly, who was paralyzed from the chest
down in a 1998 automobile accident, it will be merely the latest
in a string of inspiring accomplishments. In 2002 Pipoly, who
works as a representative for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics,
became the first American paraplegic to swim the English Channel,
covering the 21 miles from Dover to Wissant in 13 hours, 48
minutes. Last year he became the first paraplegic to swim the
21-mile channel from Catalina Island to the California mainland.

This is an article from the July 26, 2004 issue

Consider, too, that the Sound crossing is a backup challenge. In
March, Pipoly was training for a 24-mile swim across Tampa Bay
the following month when he fell down the stairs at his home and
broke his left leg. The injury kept him out of the water for six

"This is testing my dedication," Pipoly said of the setback as he
began a recent training session at Denver's Cherry Creek State
Park. He extracted his wheelchair from the back of his rental
car, unfolded it and locked the back wheels. He then scooted his
body onto the chair to head to the backseat to tug on his swim
trunks. He inserted a catheter and relieved himself into a
bottle, strapped a brace on his broken leg and then took his
baclofen, a prescription medication for muscle spasms. Then he
downed some Gatorade and made his way to the water.

"Jason has a high threshold for pain--an ability to tolerate
discomfort and excessive training," says Pipoly's coach, Mark
Joyner, who was the swim coach for the 1984 U.S. Olympic
pentathlon team. "He has always asked for more."

Pipoly was a promising young swimmer when he first worked with
Joyner as a kid growing up in Colorado. A sports prodigy, Pipoly
was skiing black diamond slopes at age six and made his first
attempt to swim the English Channel at 11. He didn't make it that
time--with weather conditions turning dangerous, Pipoly's father,
Carl, plucked him from the waves four miles from the beaches of
Normandy--but he wound up on The Tonight Show, bantering with
Johnny Carson. As a teen Pipoly drifted away from swimming to
surfing and later auto racing.

It was in a road car, though, on a highway in the Colorado
Rockies, that Pipoly skidded on an icy patch and flipped down an
embankment. The car landed atop a tree in a ravine.

"When I opened my eyes, I said, 'Oh, I made it through,'" Pipoly
recalls, "I'm fine."

He wasn't. Rescue workers cut him from the car and airlifted him
to a hospital in Grand Junction, where three days later he
underwent surgery and learned he would be paralyzed for life from
the chest down. After his accident he went for days without
sleeping, he recalls, because of muscle spasms in his legs. He
was able to continue at his job in a photo lab, but some days he
would miss work, lying in bed daydreaming about the things he
used to do. He was drinking, smoking marijuana and snorting
cocaine. Then one day he saw a tape of his Tonight Show
appearance. "I felt a sense of accomplishment," he recalls. "At
the time I was crushed because I didn't make it across. But I saw
I had a tremendous amount of courage to try that at that age." A
week after watching the tape, he was back in the water. At first
he could do no more than float on his back. But he kept trying,
gaining strength and purpose.

Now he's back at Cherry Creek, churning out four miles a day
preparing for another challenge. He wheels himself across the
sand and into the water, where he fixes a large black rubber band
around his legs to keep them afloat. He swims at a steady pace,
stretching his arms to pull deeper, and he waits for that moment
when his body rolls effortlessly and it feels as if he were born
in the water.
--Ericka Blount Danois

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DESIREE VOINCHE (2) SEA CHANGE In swims such as this 21-mile Catalina crossing last year, Pipoly can escape his wheelchair and reclaim his preaccident athleticism.