His dad calls him Joe Willie. His nickname on the Wilson High School swim team is J-Dog. He says he prefers Joseph.
No matter which name you choose, you can always call Wilson junior Joe Medrzycki, 17, a winner.
His teammates and coach Don Higgins say he’s an important and enthusiastic member of the Rams swim team.
Medrzycki, who has Down syndrome, will join five other swimmers with disabilities from around the state in a special competition at the state boys’ swim meet, which will take place Saturday (Feb. 21) at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.
Mike Medrzycki sums up his son’s feelings about the big event this way: “He is beaming with Ram Pride.”
The state swim meet exhibition event for students with disabilities began more than 10 years ago, said Andy Barnes, assistant executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association which oversees high school sports statewide.
He said it started as an event for students with physical challenges, then broadened to include students with cognitive disabilities like Medrzycki’s.
The competition runs only when there are enough students who can participate, and this year, six students will swim, Barnes said.
Some of those students otherwise would have limited chances to make it to state competition, he said.
“This is an opportunity for them to showcase their talents,” Barnes said.
The special event gives team members with disabilities an opportunity to experience the excitement of a state meet, said Mike Kelly, head swim coach at Gig Harbor High School and president of the Washington Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association.
He said he doesn’t know a lot of special needs swimmers who join their high school teams.
“It takes a special kid to integrate into that, and it takes special team mates to accept them,” Kelly said.
Joining the Rams swim team was a natural step for Medrzycki, who learned to swim early and whose older siblings participated on the team before him.
“I already knew how to swim,” he said. “I was taking lessons.”
When he started swimming with the Rams, he said he immediately felt like part of the team.
“I had a very good connection between me and Ben, and with the whole team,” he said.
Team Captain Ben Kaija said Medrzycki is a leader in cheering teammates on during warm-ups.
“It feels good to have him on the team,” Kaija said. “He’s always been one of the more exciting ones on the team.”
“He always has enthusiasm and energy,” said teammate Evan Chard, while fending off a playful mock karate kick from Medrzycki during a recent practice.
Added team member Sam Sachs: “He’s a good character. The team wouldn’t be the same without Joe.”
Mike Medrzycki said he’s glad for the welcome his son has found on the swim team.
“What’s exciting is the acceptance by his teammates and his coach and the support he gets,” he said.
Higgins said the younger Medrzycki is a hard-working team member, who comes to daily practices and also turns up for Saturday morning sessions in the pool when he’s not involved in Special Olympics basketball.
“He participates in every one of our meets,” Higgins said, sometimes as a member of a relay team.
Higgins said Medrzycki likes to finish big, with a fist-pump.
“He feeds off the energy of the crowd and the support of his teammates,” Higgins said. “He’s an inspiration to his team.”
Medrzycki will swim a 50-yard freestyle at the state meet this weekend.
“His goal is to beat 44 seconds,” Higgins said.
Higgins said he explained to Medrzycki that the pool at the aquatic center will be different from the one at Wilson. For starters, he won’t be able to kick off from the pool’s bottom, because the center pool is deeper.
“It’s a new facility, and he has to get accustomed to it,” said Higgins, who said he plans to work with Medrzycki during warm-up time before the meet.
“I’m here to accommodate anyone who wants to swim,” he said. “My job is to make them the best that they can be, and to provide a positive experience.”