RISE Above: Domingo Santoyo

Domingo Santoyo had to learn to float before he could learn to swim.

The senior from Rivera (Brownsville, Texas) had always been afraid of water. Born without arms, Domingo spent the first 16 years of his life trying to avoid the stuff. But once he decided to take up swimming last summer, he was committed to overcoming his phobia.

"It was something I had to do," he says. "I had to conquer my fears. It wasn't a choice for me. I had to beat it."

The first step was simply getting in the water. Domingo signed up for classes at the local aquatic center, and lesson No. 1 was staying afloat.

"It was baby steps," Domingo says. "The coaches taught me how to float, how to keep my head above water and breathe. Then I started using my head and kicking. That's what I have, my head and my legs, so that's what I have to use to move forward."

After a summer of basic lessons, Domingo was confident he could handle himself in the pool. He could swim short distances and survive an emergency situation. He had defeated his fear. But now he wanted to go further.

A chance meeting with Rivera swim coach Ryan Shea gave Domingo the idea to go out for the high school team. He was a still a novice, but the prospect of being part of the squad appealed to his friendly, outgoing nature.

At the first team practice last September, Domingo jumped in and swam about 10 yards before stopping for air. Shea was impressed with the initial effort, and over the course of the season he worked with Domingo to improve his pupil's stroke and stamina. Domingo learned how to kick flip on turns and use his legs and torso to propel himself through the water.

"It turned out that I had very good leverage," Domingo says. "I have a good core and very strong legs because I use them every day for writing and other things. My legs are like my hands to me, so I have great flexibility."

Eventually, Domingo reached the point where he could complete the 50 freestyle. That's when Shea decided to enter him in a competitive meet.

"She said not to compare myself to other people because I'm not trying to beat them," he says. "I'm competing against myself and trying to be the best that I can be. That motivated me."

When Domingo completed his first race, he received a long standing ovation from the crowd, and his teammates were all waiting for him at the finish, ready to congratulate him. He counts that as his favorite moment since taking up the sport.

Now that he's conquered his fear, Domingo is focusing on making the most of his senior year. He wants to shave 14 seconds off his 50 backstroke time of 1:05.67 -- an improvement that would give him the national record in his disability classification -- and would love to attend MIT after graduation.

And Domingo has proven that once he puts his mind to it, he can accomplish just about anything.

"Teachers and students ask me all the time how he does it," Shea says. "You just can't get him out of the water. We have a two-hour practice every day, and at the end he doesn't want to stop. When he wants something, he'll work on it until he gets it. His dedication is inspiring."

Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.