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Rays to honor paraplegic

The first Tony Saunders Courage award goes to John Clewis, who swims for Wharton despite his paralysis.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001

TAMPA -- John Clewis did not win a race in three seasons with the Wharton swim team. He never came close.

But he never failed to complete a race, either. For that, he earned an even bigger accolade.

Clewis, a paraplegic, learned this week he will receive the first Tony Saunders Courage Award. The award is named for the former Rays pitcher who twice fractured his left arm, ending his career.

Saunders, his wife, Joyce, and others chose Clewis from about 70 nominees. Saunders will present Clewis with the award at the Rays' home opener April 3, Clewis' 19th birthday.

"It's so exciting that good things happen to good people," Wharton swim coach Marcie Scholl said.

Clewis could not be reached for comment.

The award, which includes a $2,500 scholarship, is to be given annually by the Rays of Hope, the team's charitable foundation, to a local student-athlete who has demonstrated extraordinary effort or excelled in a sport while overcoming adversity.

Clewis was born with myelomeningocele, the most serious form of spina bifida. An operation to close the silver dollar-sized hole in his spine saved his life but left him paralyzed from the waist down.

He was navigating his wheelchair through his school's hallways three years ago when Scholl stopped him.

"If you can push that wheelchair around," she said, "you can swim in the water."

Though he had to be lifted into the water by teammates while opponents dived from starting blocks, Clewis became a three-year letter winner.

As a sophomore, he developed a foot infection so severe he had to pose for the team picture with an IV in his arm. The following year, he was named his team's most improved swimmer after reducing his times by 18 percent.

"Everyone would stand up and cheer when John swam," Scholl said. "Every time he swam, I cried."

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