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Breaking barriers and records

October 11, 2019 by Delaney FitzPatrick

Lakeland Union High School swimmer Joey Jurries recently traveled overseas as a member of the United States Down Syndrome National Team to compete in the 5th Open European DSISO Swimming Championships. The competition was held Sept. 17-22 in Sardinia, Italy. 

Jurries and eight other athletes from across the United States lined up against swimmers from 17 European countries. The nine athletes represented the U.S. well, finishing third as a team behind Great Britain and host country Italy. 

The trip marked Jurries’ second time representing the United States on the international stage. Last summer, he competed in the World Down Syndrome Swim Championships in Canada, where he earned a collection of hardware consisting of two bronze medals and one gold.

“When we went to Canada, it was just to kind of see what was out there and Joey swam well,” Joey’s mother Judy Jurries said, who accompanied him on both trips. “We went back to Italy, not sure what to expect, and realized that he’s right in there on the competitive side.”

This year, Jurries moved up from the Junior division (16 and under) to the Senior division (17-24). The new age bracket meant he swam in the Open races, which also included athletes in the Masters divisions. Jurries rose to the challenge and though he didn’t make the podium this time around, the trip was a major success, as he once again wrote himself into the record books with five new American Region Senior Records. 

New challenges

In addition to the new age division, the championships threw another obstacle at Jurries: pool size.

Lakeland’s pool, where Jurries trains with the high school and his club team Lakeland Loons, is a 25-yard lap pool. This means he’s used to getting an additional breath and an extra boost from his turn every 25-yards. The pool in Italy was over twice that, at 50-meters, otherwise known as long course or Olympic-size.

In order to qualify for this year’s event Jurries needed to hit strict time standards. He competed in three meets throughout the summer in order to attain the marks: the Beach Bash in Topeka, Kansas in May; the 2019 USA Swim Fairfax Meet in Eau Claire in June; and the 2019 Wisconsin LSC Summer Regional in Pleasant Prairie in July. All three meets were hosted at facilities with Olympic-size pools.

Racing at these facilities gave Jurries some experience in the long course pools, but not nearly enough to prepare him fully. 

“He’s young at learning that extra distance,” Judy said. 

The handful of Olympic-size pools in Wisconsin are scattered throughout the southern part of the state. Because Olympic-size pools are scarce, Judy said “it’s tougher for him to train and for him to get experience.”

The Open European DSISO meet was only his fourth time swimming in a long course pool. 

Record-breaking performances

Regardless of these challenges, Jurries had a great series of races. Although he hit qualifying marks in 10 different events for Italy, he was only able to compete in eight, the maximum. 

His best performances came during the first two days of the championship. 

On day one, Jurries competed in the 200-meter freestyle, 50-meter backstroke and 100-meter butterfly, qualifying for the finals in all three races. 

He had a huge effort in the 200-meter freestyle prelims, setting a new personal record of 3:01.49, which was ninth fastest time out of the heats. The final was stacked with strong swimmers. Jurries improved upon his qualifier time and place, finishing in fifth with another new personal record of 2:56.43, which was 16 seconds faster than his best coming into the meet. The competition level of the final was so high that the first four Seniors in the field, Jurries included, topped the former Senior World Record.

Later in the day, Jurries snagged another fifth place in the 50-meter backstroke in 41.43, just a clip slower than his time in the heats. 

Finally, he raced the 100-meter butterfly, where he was disqualified in the finals due to an accidental illegal stroke. Still, his qualifying time of 1:36.80 was good enough for a new American Region Senior Record.

Judy was excited about how her son performed under the pressure.

“He was right in there with them,” she said. “He was right where he belonged.”

On day two, Jurries competed in the 100-meter backstroke and 50-meter butterfly. 

The backstroke proved to have another highly competitive field, but Jurries held his own. Having swum well in the qualifier, he was able to maintain his position, bettering his time by about half a second to 1:31.82 and finishing in fifth place. All six of the Seniors in the final swam faster than the former Senior World Record, with Jurries being the youngest. 

In his second race that day, the 50-meter butterfly, he was runner-up in his heat, but his time of 41.52 was not enough to get him into the finals. He finished 11th overall in the event.

On day three, Jurries swam in two events and set new American Region Senior Records in each. His time of 35.43 in the 50-meter freestyle landed him in 13th place. He had another stellar race in the 400-meter freestyle, finishing 8th in 6:27.78, an impressive 16-second personal record. 

Jurries competed in one final event on the last day of competition: the 100-meter freestyle. He came up a bit short in the heats and failed to make the final, but his time of 1:19.70 was still a new American Region Senior Record.

“Overall we were really proud of him,” Judy said. “Obviously when you’re dropping 10 or more seconds off of a PR, you’re swimming a good race. So the 200 free and the 400 free obviously were the two big ones where he pulled a bunch of time off.”

Judy attributes Jurries’ success to his coaches at home. She also credits the unwavering community support she feels anytime her son is out selling lemonade to fundraise or she posts a new update to her Facebook. 

“I really appreciate T-Bird Nation,” she said.

Opening doors

The young swimmer’s fast times are opening up even more doors, as Jurries is beginning to hit what are known as “Motivational Times standards” in the intellectually impaired category for the Paralympics. Currently, there are no adjustments for down syndrome athletes in the Paralympics, which is part of the reason the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization (DSISO) was originally established.

Having the chance to compete in Paralympic events would give Jurries more competition opportunities. His parents believe he has a lot of untapped potential and simply needs more race experience.

“He doesn’t even know how to race yet. He doesn’t. He’s only going a little over practice speed,” Joey’s father Jack said.

Judy agreed, saying, “he has a lot of natural talent — untapped talent.”

With this in mind, it’s exciting to think about what Jurries can accomplish in the future. 

Judy is eager about giving her son and other down syndrome swimmers more opportunities to race against one another. According to her, the confidence her son gains from competing against other down syndrome athletes is evident. 

“When he’s in that environment, he tends to step up to the plate,” she said. “It’s trickier for him to swim at the high school or USA swim level because he’s not the fastest swimmer in the pool.”

The international trips, specifically, have also been valuable in Jurries’ self-development. In regards to the relationships she’s seen him developed with his teammates, Judy said, “They trained as a team; they ate as a team; they did everything as a team, so just the growth opportunity he gets toward independence is really important for us at these events.” 

All of the athletes who traveled to Italy had been on the trip to Canada the previous summer. Judy said  his familiarity with his coach and teammates helped prepare him for this past trip.

A league of their own

It’s encouraging that the trips have proven positive for the athletes that attend them, and Judy is hopeful that more families will be able to get involved. 

In fact, USA Down Syndrome Swimming (USADSS), the organization that sponsored the trip to Italy, is brand new. 

When Judy and the other parents were at the Canada event, she said they noticed that “a lot of our international counterparts — the Australians, the Mexicans, the Great Britains, the Brazilians, the French — they all have these formal swim organizations within their country where they field their team.” It was then that the athletes’ parents, along with the team coach and manager, decided the United States needed its own.

There were two primary reasons Judy and the other organizers felt forming the USADSS was essential to the success and growth of the sport for American down syndrome swimmers.

First, they wanted to spread awareness about the down syndrome swim team and the opportunities it affords. 

“I just want to get the word out that if anybody knows a young athlete with down syndrome who loves to swim, I want them to reach out to us because we want to grow our team and our pool of swimmers,” said Judy, who holds a position on the USADSS board. 

Second, USADSS is working to gain 501 (c3) status in hopes of raising funds to bring down the cost of the trips and make them more accessible to families. Judy believes that in the future, the cost of uniforms and expense of the athletes will be greatly reduced or even fully covered by funding.

USADSS has already made strides in bringing more down syndrome swimmers together, hosting a training camp this past May in Kansas City, Kansas. They plan to hold the camp yearly.

The next international competition for Jurries and the rest of the team will be the 2nd Trisome Games in Antalya, Turkey beginning March 31, 2020. There, they will race against the best in the world at the Olympic Games equivalent for down syndrome athletes.

Jurries has 172 days to ensure he’s fit and ready to go for the big day in March and his preparations are already underway. To start, he took a well-deserved two-week break. Training will ramp back up again, as Jurries begins practice with the club team for the next several weeks until mid-November when the high school season begins.

For more information on United States Down Syndrome Swimming, visit USADSS.org or add USADSS on Facebook.

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