Paralympic student athlete swims for the gold

Roderick “Rod” Sewell raises for a breathe as he practices the freestyle stroke. Roderick practices daily at the Sheffield Recreational Center.

No legs, no shoes, no problem.

Competing in an international Olympic swim match with the absence of your lower body may seem like a feat of nature, but for one UNA student, winning a gold medal is just another check mark in a box.

Public communication major Roderick “Rod” Sewell’s first international meet debuting with the U.S. Para-swim team landed him a gold medal as he met the finish line with a 1:40.68 time, propelling beyond his competitors in the 100-meter breaststroke.

The U.S. team competed against 20 other countries in Pasadena, California’s Rose Bowl Aquatics Center during the Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships Aug. 6-10.

His nine-a-week practices during the three-month summer period prepared him for competition in four events: 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter breaststroke, 100-meter backstroke and the team medley relay.

“I feel honored,” he said. “But this isn’t it. I want to reach for Rio and win a gold medal. Even then, that wouldn’t be where I would stop.”

Sewell, 22, has been an above-the-knee double-amputee for almost 21 years. He was born lacking both tibias, the large bones located on the lower half of the legs. His feet were also twisted 360 degrees. Sewell’s fate would either be in a wheelchair or in prosthetics for the rest of his life.

His mother, Marian Sewell, made the executive decision to have his legs amputated when he was only a year old. She now describes it as a blessing in disguise, she said.

“Early on, I felt like having no legs meant having no life,” she said. “He showed me different.”

Sewell practiced positive thinking by saying, “I am who I am,” despite his physical differences. He said he learned to shake negativity off his shoulders and focus on his passion: swimming.

Fear of the water at age 10 became Sewell’s motivation to make his start in the pool, he said.

“I met a friend of mine who was another double above-the-knee amputee, and he knew how to swim,” Sewell said. “I wanted to learn so I could overcome my fear.”

He said his first swim coach, Alan Voisard, became one of the “most influential people in (his) life.”

Voisard had only the same to say about Sewell.

“I met (Rod) through the Challenged Athletes Foundation after he applied for a grant to learn how to swim,” Voisard said.

“The original intent was to teach him to swim for safety purposes.”

Voisard acted as his mentor and pushed him to pursue a college degree, knowing his education would prepare him to be the best representation of America he could be, he said.

“Rod knows mediocrity is not the path to success,” he said. “And as the fastest SB6 (swim breaststroke class 6) swimmer in America and No. 13 or 14 in the world, his hard work has put him at a good chance to qualify,” Voisard said.

    Originally, Sewell said, he kept swimming just to see how well he could do. But, when he created a following of people cheering him on, he knew he began to swim for his supporters, not himself.

    At a spring break swim meet in Miami earlier this year, Sewell raced in a qualifier for the USA team to compete in the Para Pan Pacific Championships and qualified along with 44 other athletes.  

    “I went just to get my best time, then I got an email saying I made the team,” he said, grinning. “Once that happened I had to change my entire summer plans, move to California and start training.”

    Sewell plans to graduate in the spring and either move to California to continue training and working, or to live in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

    He said his experiences working with kids and being in the public light have inspired him to become a motivational speaker.

    “I feel honored, and I feel like I’ve come a long way,” he said. “But, this is only the beginning for me.”

He said his next aspiration is to compete in the world championships next year in Germany, and ultimately, to win gold in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.