Scholz overcomes odds to set records at Loyola

BALTIMORE -- He jumps off the starting block and hits the water hard. He begins counting his strokes, while paying careful attention so as not to mangle his right hand on the lane line. He approaches the wall and effortlessly executes a flip turn.

He takes a breath and repeats.

An unsuspecting onlooker wouldn't think Phil Scholz was out of place practicing with his teammates from Loyola College in Maryland's Division I swim team.

But upon closer inspection, it's clear he's in a whole different league.

No other swimmer brings his dog to practice. Scholz brings his 2½-year-old yellow Labrador, Taxi, with him every day. They travel all over campus together -- because Scholz is blind and Taxi is his guide dog.

Even with his visual impairment, Scholz is a full-fledged member of the Loyola Greyhounds swim team. He is a freshman walk-on this season. His coach, Brian Loeffler, hadn't seen Scholz swim before he arrived on this small Baltimore campus.

But in Scholz's first meet, on Dec. 1, he set eight American Paralympic records. Since then, he has set three more and was named the Division I swimmer of the week for the second week in December. He now owns 11 American Paralympic records and has his sights set on competing in the Paralympics this September in Beijing.

The U.S. Paralympics swimming trials will be held April 3-5 at the University of Minnesota. Swimmers that achieve times ranked in the top 3 in the world rankings earn automatic berths on the United States Parlympic team. Currently, Scholz ranks fifth in the world in the 400-meter freestyle and seventh in the world in the 100-meter butterfly.

According to the Paralympics Committee, for purposes of rankings and fairness, disabled athletes are separated into categories or divisions, similar to how boxers and wrestlers are separated into weight classes. There are six major classifications: amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries and intellectual disability. Inside these classifications are categories that further describe the degree to which the athletes are disabled. Scholz is in the S-11 category for athletes who are completely blind.

Scholz captures the attention of nearly everyone he meets. One of his fans is U.S. Olympian and world-record holder Katie Hoff, who trains just down the road from Loyola with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and is considered one of the top American Olympic hopefuls for Beijing. She has many friends on the Loyola swim team but didn't know of Scholz until a reporter mentioned him to her. She was astounded.

"My coach sometimes gives me drills where I swim for 20 seconds with my eyes closed, and I end up going in every direction," Hoff said. "It's really inspiring. I'm worried about swimming fast, and he's worried about hitting the wall."

Scholz has taken a long road to reach where he is today. Born in 1988 in Munich, Germany, Scholz moved with his family to Mount Sinai, N.Y., when he was 7. After a normal birth, he was diagnosed with Pierre Robin syndrome, in which the lower jaw is very small, and a cleft palate. He underwent three surgeries on his cleft palate, in 1988, 1990 and 1995. Also in 1988, he was diagnosed with Morbus Hirschsprung, a rare colon disease, and he had four surgeries for it before his third birthday. Then, when he was 6, after he suffered a 270-degree tear of his left retina, he was diagnosed with Stickler syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue. He underwent four surgeries over the next five months, but the sight in his left eye could not be saved.

When Scholz was 10, he began having severe hearing problems for which he needed reconstructive surgery on his left ear. When he was 12, he contracted cataracts in his right eye, and by 2005, his right retina detached and he was declared legally blind. By the age of 15, Scholz already had undergone more than 20 surgeries.

Throughout it all, Scholz's mother, Ariana, made sure he lived a normal childhood and helped him search for a passion. New neighbors moved in with three kids, all of whom were swimmers. When Ariana stopped by to introduce herself, the neighbors suggested her son try swimming. They recommended a swim club, and Scholz took to the sport immediately.

Swimming proved to be the perfect athletic outlet for him. Because of his eye surgeries, he never was allowed to be involved in contact sports. While in middle school, he spent gym class on the sideline.

In the pool, Scholz felt he truly belonged. He could do exactly what everyone else could do. He was a member of the Three Village Swim Club in East Setauket on Long Island and swam four years as an independent swimmer for Mount Sinai High School, because the school does not have a swim team.

During races, a person designated as a tapper helps Scholz know where the wall is. The tapper uses a 6-foot pole with a tennis ball on the end to tap him on the back or shoulder to signify how close the wall is.

In the classroom, it has been more challenging. His parents used to read his homework to him. Ariana constructed models he could touch and feel to help him understand geometry. It wasn't until near the end of his high school career that books on tape were ordered for him.

College always was Scholz's ultimate goal, but he needed an accessible campus, a disability-friendly school and, most importantly, a place he could swim.

"It was out of the question to not swim in college," he said. "There was no way I would be like, 'I've been doing this for seven years, and now I'm out.' Number one, I had to find a coach that would meet me in the middle."

The search was not for someone light of heart; disabled athletes are not always accepted in the mainstream sports world. After Scholz heard a wave of no's, someone finally said yes. That someone was Loeffler.

"Brian Loeffler has to be the bravest man on this earth," Ariana said. "Five minutes into the conversation with Philip, he says, 'Philip, I'd love to have you on my swim team.' He had no background information yet, no clue what he was getting himself into, and he committed to Philip."

Loeffler said yes without a second thought. Scholz didn't need to score points for his team; many swimmers don't score points for the team.

"I chatted with him when he was a senior in high school, and we talked a lot about his dreams," said Loeffler, a former Loyola swimmer who has coached at the college for 17 years. "Then I did some research on his times, and I could see he could fit on our team and had potential. The beauty of swimming is that the times don't lie."

While everyone at Loyola accepted Scholz's blindness, the coaches had a quandry: They didn't know how they were going to train him. What lane would he swim in? Would he keep a straight line? How would he know when he was approaching the wall?

Finally, Loyola assistant coach Mike Hoffman decided to let Scholz just jump in the water and swim.

Scholz swam like any other swimmer, with the exception that he counted his strokes so he would know when to start his turn and where the wall was. And his inability to see opened his team's eyes.

Some of his teammates tried swimming with their eyes closed and quickly found themselves bumping into the wall. Still, no one knew quite how to approach Scholz. Should they make exceptions for him? Should they treat him just like everyone else?

"In the beginning, everyone was like, 'Oh my god, what if I insult him?' Scholz said. "I'll tell you right now, it's really hard to insult me."

"On an individual basis, when you're in the middle of a really hard practice, when you're in the middle of a really hard set, and your legs are burning and you can't breathe and you just wanna give up," senior captain Patrick Hicks said, "you look over four lanes and you see this kid, completely blind, doing the same thing you are, and he's not complaining about it. You see that and you can't give up."

When Loeffler took Scholz to the U.S. Paralympic Open Swimming Championship at the University of Maryland in College Park in December, he realized just how much admiration he has for Scholz.

"I was with him at that meet 24-7," Loeffler said. "I did everything from reading him the menu at dinner to giving him a tour of his hotel room. I had to show him where the beds were, where the shower and toilet were."

Scholz's story has become more known throughout the student body, with people finding out he is on the swim team and he lives on campus, hundreds of miles from home. When people want to know more, he is more than willing to tell it.

"It started off with people seeing a blind guy with a dog," he said. "Now it's a person who is followed around by a dog."

Scholz has become so well accepted he is applying to become a resident assistant and to be a member of Evergreen, a group of students who welcome incoming freshmen.

When he's with fellow students, he talks about normal college stuff. And he's constantly injecting his own self-deprecating brand of humor.

"We'll be talking about a girl, just guys talking about a girl, and he'll be like, 'That's not fair. I can't see her,"' Hicks said.

Scholz has a voice-activated system on his computer so he can listen to e-mails. Often, he jokes by sending an e-mail to Loeffler saying, "OK, I'll see you tomorrow."

Aside from swimming, Scholz also enjoys writing. This hobby began with him imitating the writing of TV shows and has evolved into writing short stories. His favorite author is John Grisham, his favorite books "A Time to Kill," "The Chamber" and "The Innocent Man."

"I love writing criminal justice stories. Right now, I'm working on this big four-parter that I hope to get published some day," Scholz said.

Hicks was in a book publishing class this past semester that was taught by the editor in chief of Loyola's publishing company, Apprentice House. For his final project, he compiled six of Scholz's short stories, including memoirs about overcoming the struggles of blindness, that Hicks said the school is trying to get published.

"If you think about it, in a year from now he could be a Division I athlete, a [Paralympics] athlete and a published author, all within his freshman year of college," Hicks said. "He has this huge burden on his back, yet he is more successful than 90 percent of the campus."

Scholz, for one, isn't giving up.

"I think I'm doing this, and I'm doing it well, despite the fact that I have a disability, and I don't let my disability influence what I do," Scholz said. "That's what should be the inspiration. Like, 'Hey, I'm blind, but it doesn't matter.' That's the message right there."

It's a message that's being heard at Loyola loud and clear.

Matt Kiebus is a junior at Loyola College in Maryland and a columnist for The Loyola Greyhound. He can be reached at mjkiebus@loyola.edu.