FREDERICKSBURG, Va. -- To be an athlete at any college program requires talent and discipline.
To be a swimmer at Mary Washington requires those abilities in abundance.
The women's team at UMW has won every title the Capital Athletic Conference has ever awarded and the men's team has won 21 of 25.
Hopewell's Joey Peppersack had his choice: go to a smaller program where he would be more successful or come to Mary Washington where he wouldn't be the biggest fish in the pond. He chose the latter.
"I just wanted to stay in the water and I wanted to compete to get as good as I possibly could get," said Peppersack.
"Joey's a really talented swimmer and he's a hard worker," said UMW head coach Justin Anderson. "I think he also saw an opportunity to come to a roster where he was going to be pushed every day by people that were faster than him and we're going to help him reach that ultimate goal of making that Olympic team."
You heard correctly, the Olympics. But maybe not the games you're thinking of.
Peppersack was born with what's called Tibial Hemimelia. He was missing his right tibia at birth and his left wasn't as strong as it should be either. Joey lost his right leg above the knee when he was 4.
"I just remember a few things like the stitches because they were giant because it's an amputation," Peppersack recalled.
Joey has always welcomed questions about his condition. Something his parents encouraged him to do at an early age. But that doesn't mean his childhood was without problems or frustration.
"Growing up, it was kind of annoying when my friends would play running games like tag, so I would always resort to board games or video games," said Peppersack.
Until he found the water.
Joey needs to take certain precautions with his leg that his teammates don't have to consider but what he gets in return from the pool is a release from his daily constraints.
"I might be frustrated one moment but the next I'm in the pool doing what I love to do," Peppersack said. "Being in the water is freedom because I'm not bound to anything. I don't have to wear this (prosthetic). I can move faster than I do on land."
"I've never heard a complaint out of Joey's mouth, which is great to have on this team," said Anderson. "When you've got someone with obviously challenging circumstances who doesn't let them limit him in any way and doesn't complain and the rest of the team kind of follows suit with that."
Joey's best discipline is the backstroke which is more comfortable for him than any other stroke. His times this year are good enough to land him on the US Paralympic team C roster, which is the first step towards the Paralympic games in Tokyo in 2020.
That's a personal goal, but while his teammates are helping him improve, he's giving back to them in ways he might not always realize.
"It's a challenge for me as a coach to figure out how am I going to get them to move through the water as fast as they can with whatever their challenge might be," Anderson explained. "I think the attitude part of it is having someone on the team that is kind of a rallying point for their teammates to say 'Joey just crushed it. Why can't I get up there and do the same thing?'"
"Disabilities don't really tell you what you can or can't do," Peppersack explained.
"You just have to do it differently."
Joey is headed to the Para National Championships in Indianapolis in April. If he performs well enough there, he will qualify for the U.S. team headed to the world games in Malaysia.
He has the next 16 months or so to get a spot on the team that goes to Japan in 2020.
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