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Inspired by Phelps, Luk rises above

Editor's note: This "RISE Above" feature was originally published in the October 2008 issue of ESPN RISE and was selected by the ESPN RISE magazine staff as the best story of the year.

During Michael Phelps' historic run to
eight Olympic golds this summer in
Beijing, one race in particular stood
out to Andrew Luk. It was Phelps' fourth
championship race, the 200-meter butterfly --
the event he swam blind.

Phelps' goggles filled with water during the
race, leaving him unable to see the pool wall in
front of him or the lane markers and competitors
on his sides. Nevertheless, Phelps prevailed in
world-record time to keep his march toward
Olympic immortality alive.

In the aftermath, Phelps' determination and
perseverance were praised by media members
worldwide. But only a handful of people could
truly appreciate what Phelps was up against.
Andrew was one.

Since joining the Diamond Bar (Calif.) swimming team last year, Andrew has swum
every race like Phelps swam the 200 fly -- blind.

A tumor on Andrew's brain stem discovered
when he was 5 left him completely blind in his
right eye and with only the ability to detect light
in his left eye, while also rendering him partially
deaf. Two loving parents and three supportive
siblings helped Andrew grow up living life to the
fullest, and he blossomed into a model student
while developing a love of reading (via Braille)
and listening to the radio.

But upon entering high school, Andrew
began feeling secluded.

"I needed to do something to get involved,
something to make me feel like I fit in with people,"
says Andrew, a junior with a 3.9 GPA. "A school day
was beginning to feel like something I just wanted
to be over as quickly as possible."

In a moment of inspiration, he decided to try
out for the swim team. The logistical obstacles
were hurdled easily. He did not begin races by
diving into the water, instead pushing off from
the wall. Two six-foot poles with tennis balls
attached to the end were created so teammates
could tap him when he was getting close to the
wall and he would know when to make his turns.

He started off competing in the 500 freestyle
as a way to help build stamina, but that also left
him to swim the final few laps of each race by
himself after his competitors finished. It was
then, however, that the connection he was
seeking with his peers began to take shape.

"Without fail, once it got down to the final
few laps, all the members of our team, of our
opponent's team, people in the stands, they
would all start to cheer for
Andrew," says Michael
Spence, who coached
his final season at
Diamond Bar last
year. "I'd be crying
like a baby, yelling,
'Go, Andrew, go.'"

Andrew's stamina
and form improved
rapidly, and he
dropped his
time by more
than a minute
in his first few
races. He continued
to
practice in
the offseason
and
entered his
junior year
well-versed in
a wide variety of
strokes.

More importantly,
Andrew entered this school
year with a newfound connection to his
classmates. Kids who didn't previously know how
to approach him have a reason to start a
conversation, which is leading to more meaningful
relationships. And inspired by a UNICEFsponsored
trip to Spain over the summer, Andrew
intends to further challenge himself by beginning
to write for the school newspaper.

"I've felt more of a camaraderie between lots
of people who had known who I was before but
hadn't gotten to know me," Andrew says. "Now
they really talk to me and see me face-to-face as
a high school kid just like they are."