Paralympian with Mitochondrial Myopathy Swims in London

Nineteen-year-old swimmer Joe Wise has overcome numerous challenges to make it to the Paralympic Games

Joe Wise swims for his college, Loyola University Maryland, and as a member of the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team.
Article Highlights:
  • Mitochondrial myopathy affects Joe Wise’s breathing, walking and stamina, but it hasn’t prevented him from competing as a world-class athlete.
  • Wise, who participated in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, will be swimming in five events in London during the Paralympic Games, which run from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9, 2012.
  • Anthony Zahn, a cyclist with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, also will be representing the U.S. at the Games.
by Barbara and Jim Twardowski, RN on August 27, 2012 - 5:00am

Update (Oct. 16, 2012): Joe Wise placed fifth in the 400-meter freestyle at the London Paralympic Games. Watch an interview with Joe to learn more about his experiences at the Paralympics.

As an energetic youngster in Menlo Park, Calif., Joe Wise’s favorite sports were baseball and football. Once he developed allergies and asthma, though, his mom, Marie, insisted that he add swimming to his athletic pursuits to improve his health.

When Wise turned 9, his parents noticed alarming changes — he moved slower and complained of hip pain. His legs became weaker and writing was difficult. That year, doctors diagnosed him with mitochondrial myopathy. There was a good chance, they said, that he wouldn’t live to see his 15th birthday.

But Wise had a secret weapon. He was a swimmer. Kelly Crowley, a fellow hometown swim team member and Paralympian, told him about the Paralympic Games.

Two years after his diagnosis, Wise competed in the 2004 Athens Paralympic Trials in Minneapolis, Minn. “I was nowhere close to making the team. After the trials, I decided I wanted to go to the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. From that moment on, my whole life was swimming,” says Wise, who attended practices nine to 11 times a week and began eating a healthy “athletic” diet.  

At the age of 15, Wise made it to Beijing and swam in one event as a member of the U.S. Paralympic Team. Wise’s Mom credits swimming for her son’s miraculous survival in those early years.

“I love swimming — it has introduced me to some of my best friends. Swimming makes me feel normal. I know this may sound a little weird, but I train with two able teams both at my club and at college. Once I dive in the pool, I forget about my disease. I forget about all the negative doctor news. I forget about the ventilator,” says Joe. “The swimming pool is also the place where I can take my frustration out. Sometimes after hearing negative news from doctors I have the best practices of the year. I just take my anger out in the pool.”  

On to London, despite setbacks

Inspired by his experience as a Paralympian in Beijing, Wise immediately set a new goal to compete in not just one, but multiple events in London 2012.

Through the next four years of high school, Wise's mind flourished while his health continued to fail. In addition to an enlarged heart, he experienced weakness in his hips and diaphragm, and motility issues. By 2010, he needed treatments with a volume vent to deal with his enlarging heart. Despite his health issues, Wise's straight-A average and athletic abilities caught the notice of Loyola University Maryland, located in Baltimore. In 2011, he began college as a member of the school’s swim team.  

Just as he was closing in on his Paralympic goal, however, Wise’s condition “took a turn for the worse,” says his mom. His swim times slowed, his heart continued to weaken, his balance was poor, and he was spending more time on the vent. In February 2012, Wise's failing health forced him to take a medical withdrawal from college. “That was very tough — putting my education on hold and leaving my friends,” he says.

Refusing to give up hope, his doctors and his coaches promised, ‘We’re going to get you to London.” By early May, his health had dramatically improved. In June, he competed in the Paralympic trials and earned a place with the U.S. swim team.  

“The feeling I had when my name was called for the London team is almost indescribable. I felt ecstatic, and actually couldn't believe it. Three weeks prior to trials, I had one of the worst meets of my life. My coaches and I talked about if it was even worth going to trials in Bismarck, North Dakota,” Wise says. 

The 19-year-old will compete in five Paralympic events: 200-meter individual medley, 100-meter butterfly, 100- and 400-meter freestyle, and the 100-meter breastroke. 

“I have put the time, effort and hard work into this one goal. Considering the tough year I have had, just being on the team is a victory,” says Wise. “I have accomplished my goal. It just wasn't the road I wanted to take, but I guess God has a plan for everything and he was with me every step of the way.” 

After the London Paralympic Games, Wise will return to Loyola University Maryland to pursue a degree in political science with a minor in communications. He intends to continue swimming with the college team and help Loyola win a conference championship. “I plan on swimming to 2016 — I want to give my college coach four solid years of swimming,” he says. “I figure retiring in 2015 is way too close to a games year, so I will stick around for another year and hopefully make the [Paralympic] team and swim in Rio in 2016.”  

What are Wise’s long-term goals? He hopes to attend grad school and enter the world of politics working as a lobbyist for disability rights.  

Follow Wise’s adventures at the U.S. Paralympic Games on Facebook and Twitter, and learn more about his story in this 2008 video.

How to see the Games

The 2012 Paralympic Games will be held in London August 29 through September 9. They encompass 21 separate sporting events: archery, athletics, boccia, cycling road, cycling wheelchair, equestrian, football 5-a-side, football 7-a-side, goatball, judo, powerlifting, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, table tennis, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis. A record 2.2 million tickets have been sold.

The Games can be watched in the U.S. via several outlets:

  • The U.S. Paralympics YouTube channel is broadcasting 10 daily highlights of the games, interviews with the athletes plus the opening and closing ceremonies.
  • Uninterrupted, live coverage will be aired on five channels on the International Paralympic Committee website.
  • Paralympic.org will broadcast more than 1,000 hours of sporting action.
  • NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) will air one-hour highlight shows on Sept. 4, 5, 6 and 11 at 7 p.m. EDT. NBC will broadcast a 90-minute special about the Paralympic Games on Sept. 16 from 2-3:30 p.m. EDT. All NBC and NBC Sports Network Paralympic highlight shows and specials will re-air on Universal Sports Network and UniversalSports.com.

For a wonderfully detailed overview of all sports at the Games, and a calendar of events, see The Paralympian: Paralympic Games Special Edition.

Anthony Zahn

Also competing in London will be Anthony Zahn, a cyclist with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China. 

Anthony, 37, is originally from Riverside, Calif., where he owned a bike shop, but now lives in Lincoln, Neb., with his wife, Deane.

Cycling (road and track) is the third-largest sport in the Paralympic program. There will be 225 cyclists in London (70 women and 155 men) — the U.S. is sending 17 of them: eight women and nine men.

Zahn — who has been singled out as one of several U.S. Paralympians who should be “exciting to watch” — will represent the U.S. in four events in London.

To learn more about Anthony Zahn, follow him on Twitter and watch this 2011 YouTube video.

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