Paralympian sets world and American swimming marks

For the Towson Times
Dulaney rising junior is leaving American Paralympic records -- and one world mark -- in his wake

Connor Gioffreda was willing to try something different a year ago when he began swimming.

"I never really swam confidently before," said Connor, of Timonium, who has dwarfism. "But now I feel I'm starting to catch up."

Is he ever.

The 16-year-old, who will be a junior at Dulaney High School this year, is leaving American Paralympic records — and one world mark — in his wake while training under the experienced eyes of coach Andrew Barranco for the Towson Merritt Athletic Swim team.

The Paralympics are organized athletic competitions "for people with Paralympic-eligible impairments, including physical disabilities and visual impairments," according to the organization's website. Swimming also allows athletes with intellectual impairments to compete, although they are in a separate classification.

Connor's next step is even more ambitious, setting his sights on the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

While Connor has already qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials next year, he still has some strong competition ahead if he is to compete on the world stage in Rio.

"He's ranked about 20th in the world now," Barranco said. "But he's going to have to be in the top eight to make the team."

Connor's father, Jim, said that his son "has his sights set on Rio. That's his goal."

The teen set four new American standards in the 400-meter individual medley, 200-meter butterfly, 800-meter freestyle, and the 1,500-meter freestyle events. His 1,500 freestyle also snapped a world record for his disability classification at the Jimi Flowers meet at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., June 6-7 in three intense sessions of rugged competition.

The 4-foot-4 teen does not allow anything to stand in his way from being a top-notch swimmer.

Connor is considered to be in the S6 classification for Paralympic athletes, one of a grouping that ranges from S1 being the most severe to S10 having the least impact on those with physical impairments. S11, S12 and S13 classifications are for visually impaired athletes and S14 are for mentally impaired swimmers.

Official impairment groups for Paralympic Summer Games include amputee, dwarfism, blind, visually impaired, spinal cord injury, paralyzed, wheelchair user, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, stroke and intellectual impairment for 22 sports.

In Connor's S6 classification, he competes against rivals "whose impairments affect swimming," said Queenie Nichols, high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Swimming.

Impairments in the S6 group could also include swimmers suffering with spinal cord injuries, limb loss or cerebral palsy.

Nichols said that each swimmer is evaluated on an individual basis.

"It depends on the degree of their range of motion and coordination," Nichols added while noting that a swimmer's evaluation process includes an on-site assessment during formal competition.

'All equal in the water'

Swimming has been offered as a sport as far back as the first Paralympics in 1960 in Rome and joins track and field as the Summer Games' most popular events. Just like their able-bodied Olympic brethren, paralympic swimmers compete in 50-meter pools without the aid of prostheses or assistive devices.

"Water is one of the big equalizers," Nichols said. "One of the phrases I heard since I got involved in this is that we are all equal in the water and that is really true. Athletes with disabilities, from below-knee amputations to severe quads, can compete and compete successfully."

Jim Gioffreda, an operations accountant at T. Rowe Price, said he felt it was important for his son to join the Towson-based Merritt team with able-bodied swimmers.

"Connor has really been adaptive," he said. "And his teammates are really good kids, too. He was accepted by them right away."

That is nothing new for Merritt, according to Barranco.

"The kids have always been cool by accepting (special-needs swimmers) as equals," Barranco said. "It's never been an issue here."

It doesn't hurt to have a coach in Barranco, whose expertise will be put to good use when he joins the U.S. coaching staff as an assistant in the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in Glasgow on July 13.

Having helped coach double-leg amputee Jessica Long to 14 world records and 17 Paralympic medals, Barranco was as a member of the U.S. staff for the Beijing Games in 2008 and co-head coach of the U.S. Paralympic squad in 2012 in London.

"Andrew has a tremendous amount of experience as a Paralympic coach," said Loyola University Maryland swim coach Brian Loeffler, whose own introduction to Paralympic swimming came eight years ago when blind swimmer Philip Scholz asked if he could walk-on to the Greyhounds' swimming team.

"Andrew has been coaching in this environment for many years going back to when he was Jessica Long's coach when she made her Paralympic debut as a 12-year-old in Athens. He has successfully integrated disabled athletes such as Jessica, and Connor into able-body swim programs. This takes a special coach to look beyond the disability and focus on their ability."

Barranco first met Long in 2002 when she was a 10-year-old and he was 19-year-old coach for a team in Dundalk.

She was wearing prostheses until she "sat down and popped them off," Barranco said. "She was timid and shy in the beginning, but in two years she was setting world records (in the 50-meter, 100-meter and 400-meter freestyles)."

With that background, it's no wonder that he understands special-needs swimmers, like Connor, so well.

"You have to figure out how to maximize what each swimmer brings to the table," Barranco said. "With Jess, obviously, you had to modify kick drills. With Connor, it's about modifying his interval times compared to the able-body kids. You just have to make a few modifications and adjustments, depending on the swimmer's needs. You have to use a little more creativity."

Barranco points to Melissa Stockwell and Brad Snyder as two of the more inspirational competitors he has watched compete.

Stockwell was the first female soldier to lose a limb in the Iraq War when a roadside bomb exploded while she was in a convoy in Baghdad.She was the first Iraq veteran chosen for the Paralympics and eventually became a champion in Paralympic triathlons, known as a Paratriathlons.

Snyder, a Naval officer, lost his sight in a similar circumstance in Afghanistan before becoming the world record holder for fully blind swimmers in the 400-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle events.

None of the athletes, including Connor, allows their disabilities to hold them back.

Connor, who said the butterfly is his favorite stroke, was "relieved" when he finished the 1,500-meter, world-record freestyle in the allotted time.

"I can't believe I did it in 27 minutes," he said.

Yet there are other benefits to swimming besides fierce competition.

"People with dwarfism are prone to back problems," Jim Gioffreda said. "So it's an excellent activity for him.Swimming helps to keep the muscles in good order to support the back."

While Connor's siblings, Ryan, 12, and Megan, 8, also swim for Merritt, and Angelina, 13, is taking lessons in preparation for joining them on the team, he's the family star right now.

"Connor has what it takes to go far in the sport," said Cortney Jordan, an eight-time Paralympic medalist whose cerebral palsy does not hinder her from working in a variety of jobs at the Merritt Athletic club in Towson.

"He has talent, drive, and intelligence. I'm honored to be a small part of his journey, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for him. He is in the best place he can be with Andrew as his coach. Andrew is knowledgeable about Paralympic swimming, and will be there to help him achieve his goals in the sport. "

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