Paralympic swimmer Jason Wening clears all obstacles

Jason Wening scoots through the water with half the normal leg power  Credit: USA Swimming
In June, Jason Wening was in Indianapolis, where he set three world-swimming records.

In August he returned there, competing in the 5K National Swimming Championships where one of his goals was trying not to finish last. He finished 27th out of 33 swimmers.

Nothing happened to Wening in those two months. So why was there such a drop-off in performance, you may ask?

Actually there wasn't a drop-off. Wening, who is a bilateral amputee below the knee, with a partially formed left arm and hand, was swimming against other disabled athletes in June. In August, he went up against able-bodied swimmers.

I went to that same event in 1998, said Wening, referring to the 5K nationals. My goal going in was not to finish last. And I managed to place 28th out of 34 despite going 500 meters off course. This time I wanted to go down there again, to see if I could still hold my own.

During his 26 years, Jason Wening has proven he can hold his own with anyone, anywhere.

And Wening will get another chance to prove his mettle and his medal power in Sydney, where the 2000 Paralympics began Wednesday and will run through Oct. 28. He will be competing in the 100 and 400-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly.

Whether its swimming in the 5K National Swimming Championships for able-body swimmers or the Paralympics for disabled swimmers, or in a classroom with engineering masters and Ph.D. candidates, Wening is a winner. He has emerged as a world-class athlete and perhaps even more important, a world-class person.

In June at the USA Disability Championships in Indianapolis, Wening broke his own world records in the 400, 800 and 1500 meters and qualified for his third Paralympics.

Wening recently has gotten into open-water racing. During the summer in Atlantic City, Wening and three other disabled swimmers finished fourth out of six teams in a 22.5-mile relay race. The other teams in the event had six competitors and were all able-body swimmers. Wening and his teammates time was 10 hours, 12 minutes.

We were disadvantaged not only by our disability, but the fact that we had less people, Wening said.

In a recent telephone interview Wening talked about his disability, his swimming career, his extensive education and his life in and out of the water.

Matter-of-factly, he disclosed how he was born deformed for no known medical reason.

My mother wasnt taking any drugs, prescription or otherwise, during her pregnancy. Doctors have no explanation, Wening said. My parents consulted genetic specialists and nobody had any idea where I came from."

"On my legs I had sort of two toes pointed down and no ankle. Since I couldnt walk on them, they had to amputate (the toes) to make my legs accessible to prostheses."

When he was 3 years old, surgeons trimmed his legs below the knee.

What Wening remembers about his hospital stay is indicative of his positive outlook and upbeat attitude: I recall my grandmother painting Winnie the Pooh on one of my casts."

Physical adjustments soon became secondary to psychological challenges.

His parents, retired Lt. Col. John Wening and Charlotte Wening of Jefferson City, Mo., and his younger brothers Brian and Greg helped him cope with life.

"My parents have been hugely supportive and honestly, they gave me the environment I needed in order to be successful as an athlete and a person, Wening said. They were adamant when I was growing up that they were not going to treat me any differently than they would any other child that they have.

My disability was never an excuse for anything in my household," he said. "I couldnt use it to try to get out of doing housework or chores. I couldnt use it to get a ride to school in the morning; it didnt matter. They (his parents) expected the same level of performance and activity and independence that they did from my younger brothers. They allowed me to develop all those skills that you need to be successful in life.

Brian and Gregory didnt always have a complete grasp on what I was doing swimming-wise when we were all younger, but they were always there for me.

Wening initially got into swimming when he was with his family in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed.

I had a surgical operation to correct a deformity in my left hip and the doctors said swimming would be good therapy, he said. Also the kid next door, who was a little older than I, was swimming in local club and I thought it was pretty cool and I wanted to do it.

Wenings swimming career took off during his junior and senior years at Patch American High, a Department of Defense school system in Stuttgart, Germany. He became a prize student-athlete, winning All-Europe honors for his swimming achievement.

He chose Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts for its academic reputation and because he thought he could compete at the Division III level.

While majoring in mathematics at WPI, Wening competed with the varsity swim team and by the time he graduated he had become the second best swimmer on the team. He qualified to swim at the NCAA Division III New England Championships all four years he was there before graduating in 1997.

Wening, who was born in Geneva, N.Y., moved on to Ann Arbor, Mich., and went on to the University of Michigan in 1998 to pursue a masters degree in biomedical engineering. He received that degree last December and is working toward a Ph.D. studying the biomechanics of the human shoulder.

"That came about through my swimming career, Wening said. I took an interest in understanding how the shoulders work, especially the mechanics at work in shoulders of swimmers with disabilities. Were doing a lot of clinically based work trying to understand what the structure is in the shoulder, the muscles, tendons and ligaments and what role they play supporting the joint during certain activities."

In addition to his studies, Wening spends a lot of time the water training six days a week, 11,000 meters a day and working out daily on dry land, all in preparation for the Paralympics.

"I think Sydney is going to be a great, Waning said. The rest of the world has gotten a lot faster in the eight years since I did my first Paralympics. I am training better than I have in my life and Im swimming better than I have in my life. So I think I definitely have a chance at winning a gold medal in the 400, if not resetting the world record."

Stay tuned for part two as Wening explains how he gets his positive outlook

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