Every day, swimming practice at the University of Mary Washington is a flurry of activity. For more than four hours and two sessions of swimmers, the old pool at Goolrick Natatorium gets a daily workout, as do the six lanes filled with dedicated student-athletes who work hard to capture personal bests and school and conference records.
Even at first glance, one student-athlete sticks out immediately. Sophomore Joey Peppersack was born with a condition known as Tibial Hemimelia, which is when the fetus is born without a tibia and/or the bone(s) growth are severely affected. The defect resulted in the amputation of his right leg when he was four years old.
A swimmer since age nine who also dabbled in wrestling for several years, Peppersack thrives daily and is seen as a leader in and out of the pool. "I never have to question his work ethic", says UMW first-year head coach Justin Anderson '10. "He always gives 100% in practice and meets. He's also almost always training on some of the fastest intervals on the team."
That hard work has paid dividends early this season, as Peppersack broke the American Paralympic record in the 100 yard individual medley with a time of 1:08.01 in a dual meet against Frostburg State University on October 26.
Rather than focusing on his physical disability, Peppersack has dedicated himself throughout his young life to improving in the pool each day. He has already competed in several international competitions with the Para Swimming national team, and has competed in the Paralympic trials in 2016, narrowly missing out on the Rio Paralympic team.
In other international competition, he has thrived for Para Swimming, capturing two gold medals and a bronze in the Para World Series in Berlin in 2017 as part of the 4x100 meter men's freestyle and medley relays that won gold, and also placed third in the 50 meter backstroke.
"Competing internationally in the Paralympic world is a wonderful experience because you can bond with athletes who have mobility impairments just like yourself", says Peppersack, who is already looking ahead toward the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic team.
When it came time to pick a college, one recruiting visit to Fredericksburg with former coach Abby Brethauer sealed his decision.
"I fell in love with the swim team and the school itself", says the Business major. "I'm super glad I came here because my teammates and friends are the most supportive people in the world."
His new coach, Anderson, is no stranger to Paralympic swimming, having just served as a coach for the U.S. Paralympic team this summer in Australia. Prior to returning to UMW, he served as the head coach at Frostburg State University, where he coached several Paralympic swimmers, including current UMW assistant coach Zach Shattuck, to record-breaking results and Paralympic national qualifications. Shattuck, the holder of 30 Paralympic records, trains with Peppersack with an eye on the Tokyo games.
Peppersack credits his coach for his continued improvement. "Coach Anderson is amazing. He's very active and aware of the Paralympic events and how everything works. He always has something to correct in my stroke that help me swim with my disability."
Anderson sees his experience in the Para swimming world as an asset as well. "My work with other Para Swimming athletes has definitely helped me in my work with Joey. It has let me see how other coaches have worked with, and had success with similar athletes, and given me a starting point for how we can push Joey to be the best he can be in the pool."
Anderson's experience also helped shaped the way he coaches every student-athlete. "It has challenged me and made me look at swimming through a different lens. You have to rethink how you coach and teach something when someone is missing a leg, or arm, or when they're blind, or have limited range of motion. It requires you to be creative and get out of your normal comfort zone."