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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Jason Pipoly, who nearly swam the English Channel at 11, succeeded, more remarkably, as a paraplegic.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published April 13, 2005
[Photo by Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc., 2003]
Jason Pipoly crosses the 21-mile Catalina Channel off Los Angeles Harbor, becoming the first paraplegic to do so.
Pipoly became a paraplegic after a 1998 car accident.
It was the moment of a lifetime for an adventurous kid from Texas. There he sat in the seat reserved for showbiz legends, movie stars and marquee athletes on the set of The Tonight Show , answering questions from the king himself, Johnny Carson.
At 11, Jason Pipoly had earned the rare invitation in 1982 for a most impressive feat: becoming the youngest person on the planet to attempt to swim across the English Channel.
His father, Carl Pipoly, had completed the brutal, 21-mile course between England and France two years earlier, and the boy wanted to match his dad's accomplishment. For more than eight hours he battled the relentless waves before succumbing to fatigue 4 miles short of the finish.
Still, it was enough to wow Carson, Ed McMahon and the studio audience. Pipoly was nervous, but he recalls how Carson made him feel at ease with his kindness and quips. During the show, Pipoly made a vow to the host. "I told him that I would someday go back and try it again," he said.
But the dream of completing the Channel swim faded over the years, as Pipoly became an avid skier, rock climber and surfer, eventually earning a fine arts degree from the University of Colorado.
Then, on a winter day in 1998, the course of his life made a detour. While working as a photographer and handyman in Aspen, Pipoly was driving a little too fast and lost control of his car on a gravelly Colorado road.
It flipped into a ravine. "I went to get out of the car, and I realized I couldn't feel my legs," he said. He had to be cut from the vehicle and air-lifted to a Grand Junction hospital. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
After grueling rehabilitation, while wondering what his future held, Pipoly found the answer on an old videotape his mother Mary played for him a year after the accident. It was from the magical evening of Oct.27, 1982, with the talk-show giant and the kid.
He saw something he had forgotten. The vow.
And that is why, when Pipoly competes Saturday in the eighth annual 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, he brings a dazzling long-distance resume that includes this highlight:
First American paraplegic swimmer to cross the English Channel.
The Carson tape immediately gave Pipoly a new perspective on his attempt at the Channel crossing.
"I really had never thought of (the first attempt) as a success, more like I had failed to complete it, but watching it again made me look at it entirely differently," Pipoly, 33, said by phone from his home in Nashville. "I felt like it was amazing that I had even tried.
"That's when I thought, "You know what? Maybe I could swim the English Channel as a paraplegic. This is something that I have to pursue."'
Pipoly had moved back home to Texas barely four months after the accident, living by himself in an apartment near his father in San Antonio. He didn't want special treatment, even refusing to get handicapped plates for his car. And one day in 1999, he broached the Channel idea with his dad.
"When he first told me he was going to swim the Channel, I didn't say anything to him, but I said to myself, "This is not good,"' Carl Pipoly said. "It's not a doable thing for him."'
But Pipoly asked his father to come out and watch him swim in nearby Boerne Lake, where he had been training on his own. "I watched him get out of the car, get in his wheelchair, get in the water and swim across and back - and my whole attitude completely changed," his father said.
Pipoly wanted to try the landmark swim immediately. His dad recalls several arguments over the timing, but he finally convinced his son not to rush but to prepare as thoroughly as possible. For three years, Pipoly immersed in a rigorous training regimen, swimming every day in a neighborhood pool where he once had competed. He felt a renewed sense of freedom and fulfillment that had eluded him since his accident.
He also realized he would not be able to swim the Channel without help. Specifically, he needed a flotation device to support his legs and keep him as streamlined as possible during a long swim. The solution was a pool buoy strapped to his legs. But there was also the matter of expense.
The proposed trip would cost about $10,000. Pipoly earned half of that through his job at a pool store, and his family helped with the rest.
Finally, in August 2002, he was ready. He entered the water filled with confidence, trailed by a boat that included his father, several cousins, some friends and a BBC cameraman. The first five hours were a breeze. Then, suddenly, it was as if he hit a wall. His arms ached. His stroke slowed. He began to doubt. "I thought, "Man, I just don't want to give up; I have to keep swimming,"' he said.
So he pushed on past six hours, past seven and eight, and finally began to get his second wind, forging on past globs of jellyfish and floating diesel fuel to reach the shoreline.
He had completed the course in 13 hours, 48 minutes, almost two hours faster than his father. And he had become only the second paraplegic to pull it off, joining former Australian rugby player John Maclean, who did it in 1998.
Pipoly could hear the muffled cheers coming from his father and friends on the trailing boat in the distance. In the placid darkness of a summer night, a world away from where his life had changed so drastically, he savored the moment by himself.
"I was pretty delirious," he said. "But there was no one around me on the shore. And I just felt a sense of quiet contentment."
Just a beginning
Pipoly's achievement was unsanctioned because the Channel Swimming Association doesn't allow anyone to use flotation devices. But he says he doesn't lose sleep over that. "I'm not swimming to get into the record book or show I'm better than anybody else," he said.
He's simply trying to challenge himself and encourage others facing difficult circumstances.
That is why, after the English Channel, his next big target was the Catalina Channel in September 2003, spanning 21 miles from Los Angeles Harbor to Catalina Island. Pipoly trained three hours a day, six days a week, and set out to swim the entire 42-mile round trip. He might well have done it if not for the frigid water and strong current that ended his attempt on the return leg after 26 miles over a span of 24 hours, 14 minutes and 16 seconds.
Still, he became the first paraplegic to conquer the Catalina Channel.
"It was amazing because the water was extremely cold and rough," said Kaia Halvorson, director of orthotics for the Bethesda, Md., Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc., which now sponsors Pipoly. "We were up all night throwing him food and water from the boat. It was an incredible tribute to Jason just to be able to do that swim."
He has done others, too - the five-hour swim of Boerne Lake, a 10-hour swim in Lake Erie and a 15-mile swim of Canyon Lake between Austin and San Antonio - and he may take another shot at the Catalina round trip. "He inspires me, " his father said.
Out of the water, Pipoly works as a patient advocate for Hanger, speaking with physical therapists and counseling people coming to grips with their disabilities. He also uses and gives demonstrations of a brace made by Hanger that enables him to stand and walk for short distances.
Pipoly recently moved to Nashville, where his fiancee, Vanessa Vance, attends Vanderbilt University and is studying special education. They fell in love about three years ago after meeting at a special modern dance seminar for able-bodied and disabled participants alike, staged by a professional company in Cleveland. Vance also needs a wheelchair, but it hasn't stopped them from dancing together, or Vance from dreaming of becoming a professional dancer.
"I told her that if it's something she wants to do after she gets her degree, then we'll go to Cleveland and see if she can do that," he said.
Pipoly's future marathon plans aren't set, though he knows he will continue swimming to challenge himself and hopefully inspire others who might need a boost. Swimming is only part of what has helped in his own healing process, he said, emphasizing that the real healing has come through his deep religious faith. "I think the Lord has a plan for me," he said.
So there's always a new body of water to tackle, a new challenge to overcome, for the kid who told Carson he'd be back one day to try again.