Raising Awareness about Hydrocephalus, One Stroke at a Time

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Thomas headshot

By Kaitlyn Petronglo

There are numerous challenges associated with being a high school athlete and finding a balance between academics and athletics is often difficult for a young person to achieve. For Thomas Rodriguez, a teen living with hydrocephalus in Madrid, Spain, the challenge is precisely what attracted him to the sport of swimming. With the support of his family and the perseverance of a true athlete, Thomas has made competing as a member of a national swim team a reality. Not only has swimming provided him with a positive outlet from every day stresses, but the lessons he has learned in the pool have had a positive impact on his approach to every aspect of life.

Thomas was diagnosed with hydrocephalus three days after he and his twin brother were born by emergency C-section. While his twin brother was born healthy, Thomas suffered a brain hemorrhage at birth which resulted in hydrocephalus. Thomas underwent multiple surgeries to install and revise a shunt in the first year of his life and by age five had undergone two additional emergencies surgeries to repair his shunt, one of which left him temporarily blind.

Thomas’s early health scares did not prevent him from seeking new experiences and trying new things. “My brother and I started with swimming classes when I turned four. They were really just basic swimming classes, the kind where you just learn how not to drown.” What began as a past time quickly became a passion for Thomas. By age ten he joined an organized swim team where alongside his twin brother, whom he credits with challenging him to always push himself and strive to do his best, he developed a love of swimming competitively. To date, Thomas has competed in numerous swimming events, even earning an invitation to the World Championships in the 200m freestyle this past year. Since joining a team based in Madrid for swimmers with intellectual disabilities, Thomas has set six meet records in a variety of events. In the future he hopes to qualify for the Spanish National Disability Swim Team and earn the opportunity to compete in the Paralympics held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

For Thomas, swimming has been a welcome respite from the challenges of everyday life and provided benefits far beyond the water. The challenge presented by academics and difficulty of connecting with classmates who are not always understanding of what it means to live with hydrocephalus, have presented difficulties for the teen. Thomas credits swimming with giving him the strength to confront these challenges.

“Even though my experience in my high school is so difficult and full of social and academic challenges, I have to admit that most of my school, teachers and students, support my successes in swimming. Swimming has been a real escape from the stresses that I face in other areas. And the support of my teammates is beyond my expectations. They are all awesome. It’s a great environment where especially the older swimmers have taken both my brother and I under their wing. They understand the difficulties Daniel faces in having a twin brother with so many challenges and they also take some of the pressure off of him while we are at practice, giving him that down time that he probably needs more than I realize.”

What’s more, the lessons that Thomas has learned as a member of the swim team have deeply impacted his philosophy on living with hydrocephalus and driven him to set goals on a personal level. “If, when I get out of the water after a race, I can barely move my muscles, then I know I gave it all I could. My time may be faster or slower than the last time I competed in that event, but for me the important thing is to know that I gave it my all.”

While Thomas recognizes that there will always be new challenges ahead, and that life with hydrocephalus can be unpredictable, he has found a way to apply the lessons learned in the pool to his life outside of it. “I always ask myself, did I give everything I had in that race? I always answer yes to that question. I try to take that same lesson into everything else I do.”

Raising Awareness about Hydrocephalus

In Thomas’ last meet pictured below, the team supported him by helping raise awareness about hydrocephalus and the Hydrocephalus Association. You’ll notice the HA banner hanging on the back wall above the crowd. Thomas and his family also translated signs, which hung around the pool, and distributed one page fact sheets and brochures to attendees.

thomas photo

Thomas and Swimming

Thomas began swimming at age 4. At age 10, he joined the ‘Club Natación Pozuelo’. He has been swimming in this swim league for 5 years. A year ago July, his hydrocephalus was registered as a disability which allowed him to also join the FEMADDI, which stands for Federación Madrileña Para Deportistas Con Discapacidad Intelectual (Madrid federation for athletes with intellectual disability). His first swim meet there was on November 25th 2012. He has achieved a total of 6 official records: 400 freestyle (5:27.34), 200 freestyle (2:27.50), 100 freestyle (1:09.47) in short course and 200 freestyle (2:32.75), 100 butterfly (1:25.54), 100 freestyle (1:10.97) & 100 backstroke (1:25.64) in long course. He has been chosen by the Madrid team to represent Madrid in the national competition by autonomous communities which will compete in Cadiz, Spain.

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