MUKILTEO — Some kids are born with the determination to become great athletes and the physical prowess to make that dream come true.
John Clos was born with one of those.
Clos has arthrogryposis, a genetic condition that leaves him with just traces of triceps muscles in both arms, similarly scant calf muscles in both legs, and diminished flexibility in his elbows, wrists, knees and ankles.
The condition makes it difficult for Clos, a sophomore at Kamiak High School, to do even ordinary physical activities. Walking, for instance, is painful if the distance is much beyond a few hundred yards. Likewise, popular sports such as football, basketball, baseball and soccer are simply not possible.
But Clos is a swimmer, and in the water he has found both a sport he enjoys and one that allows him to compete. And against others with a similar level of disability, he excels.
In December, Clos traveled to Edmonton, Alberta, for the three-day Can-Am Para-Swimming Championships, which brought together approximately 150 disabled athletes from Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Competing in the S8 class — the International Paralympic Committee has competitive classes for different levels of disability, and S8 is essentially for swimmers without two hands or one arm or with considerable joint restrictions in the legs — Clos placed first in the 100-meter backstroke. His prize was a large gold medal, similar to those handed out to Olympic champions.
“It was pretty nice to win,” Clos said with a smile. “I didn’t expect to.”
Clos is also a member of the Kamiak team and there he competes against swimmers without disabilities, which puts him at an obvious disadvantage. This past season he raced in junior-varsity heats where “I might not have been the slowest one, but I was pretty close,” he said.
In para-swimming events, by contrast, “you know you’re going to be competing against people (with similar disabilities). You know it’s going to be more fair and that you actually have a chance of beating them,” he said.
Still, the experience of swimming for Kamiak, one of the state’s elite high school programs, gives Clos a sense of athletic belonging that once seemed unlikely.
“Most sports are not an option,” explained his father, Bill Clos. “So I think (what he’s doing) is tremendous. For me it’s not about the athletic accomplishment. It’s about being comfortable with himself, doing activities the same as other people, and being treated as an equal. … He’s not going to let what he can’t do hold him back.”
Though his son “was a little apprehensive when he first joined the team, John is now happy to be a member of the Kamiak swim team. He’s real proud of that,” Bill Clos said.
John Clos joined the team several weeks into the season, so the remaining weeks involved “a lot of discovery,” Kamiak coach Chris Erickson said. “What can he do and how much can he handle? … With anybody that has challenges like that, you have to figure out what works for them.”
But the good thing about swimming, Erickson added, “is that it’s a sport he’s able to do. He might not be able play football, basketball or soccer. But with water being as supportive as it is, if you can get into a horizontal position and move yourself along, then you can swim. And he did a nice job.”
At the recent state swimming championships in Federal Way, Clos swam in special races for disabled athletes. He placed second in the 50 backstroke and third in the 50 freestyle, and the other Kamiak swimmers were there “cheering for him,” Erickson said.
The goal, John Clos said, is to represent the United States someday at the Paralympic Games, an event that is a few weeks after the Olympics every four years, and is held in the same host city and uses the same sporting venues. He has his eye on the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“I’d love to be in the Paralympics,” said Clos, who works out several times a month with the Seattle area’s Shadow Seals disability swim club. The chance of him being in Tokyo, he went on, “is pretty realistic, I think. My times have been improving a lot. They keep getting better. And I’m still growing.”
As he continues his training, “it’s a pretty big motivator to think about being at the Paralympics in 2020,” he said. “It’d be real cool, and you’d feel great because you’d be representing your country.”