Blind Swimming Coach Demonstrates He's More Than Capable

Originally published on December 4, 2018 12:16 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Coaching at the collegiate level is tough. Imagine how hard it must be to coach at that elite level when you're blind. That is the challenge facing the nation's only blind swimming coach at Catawba College in North Carolina. From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Cole Del Charco brings us this profile.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Take your mark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWIMMERS DIVING INTO POOL)

COLE DEL CHARCO, BYLINE: Swim practice at Catawba College is noisy, nonstop and muggy. Assistant coach Tharon Drake walks the edge of the pool barking instructions. He doesn't need to see his swimmers to know when they're doing something wrong. He can hear it.

THARON DRAKE: I'm going to show Joao in a second. I'm going to put my left hand in the position I want him. And we've talked about this so he'll know it. Left hand. Watch his hand. Yup. There he goes.

DEL CHARCO: Drake's been hounding freshman Joao Miranda all season about the way his hand hits the water.

DRAKE: What finger goes first?

JOAO MIRANDA: The middle finger.

DRAKE: Middle finger entry. Middle finger entry.

MIRANDA: Yeah. And sometimes I use my thumb first and I splash a lot of water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DEL CHARCO: For Drake, it's not hard at all to figure out when a swimmer uses bad form.

DRAKE: Everything has a different pitch, just like it would on a piano. Don't ask me what pitch it makes. It just makes a different noise.

DEL CHARCO: His swimmers at Catawba College didn't know what to think of having a blind coach at first. But not any longer. Drake has hand motions, yells and paces the pool deck, all without a white cane.

DRAKE: Pick it up. Pick it up.

DEL CHARCO: And when swimmers like junior Federico Borrego are swimming...

FEDERICO BORREGO: What you see outside the pool is going to be the same when you're racing and you come out and see - you actually see him doing, like, the hand signs, or to tell you to go faster or screaming at you. That is really, really neat 'cause any coach does that.

DEL CHARCO: Drake says his perspective gives him an edge over other coaches. They can only see problems.

DRAKE: Being able to tell the water different, being able to hear the breathing gives me so much more feedback than your typical coach is going to get. So I have more - I have more details. And if this was a math problem, I know more variables.

DEL CHARCO: Drake's an accomplished swimmer. In blind swimming divisions, he's reigning world champion and medaled in the Paralympics. But he wasn't always sure he could coach. Then one day, at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, he wanted to try something. Sitting by a fellow swimmer, he tested his theory that he could hear the difference between good and bad form. He could. But identifying specific issues took a lot of trial and error. Now he says it's easy to identify each of the 28 swimmers on this team by their sound.

DRAKE: I think of it like anything else. You know what someone looks like, their facial characteristics. I just have to memorize what their sound characteristics are. Everyone's arms hit the water a little bit different. Everyone's got a little bit different of a pattern, and you just learn where they normally will be and then what their little pattern is.

DEL CHARCO: When starting out, Drake took inspiration from some blind people who use a kind of echolocation to know their surroundings and do things like ride bikes.

DRAKE: And if we're being honest, they don't probably tell their story about how many times they ran their head into a wall trying to learn that skill. It's not like one day they woke up and, bam, they had it perfect. They had to work for it.

DEL CHARCO: So has Drake. He wants to show people that just because someone says you can't do something doesn't mean you have to listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DEL CHARCO: For NPR News, I'm Cole del Charco in Salisbury, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.