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MIDDLEBURY — Despite being briefed on the route no less than three times, the plan was rendered moot nearly the moment Caleb Cripe started his celebratory sendoff through Northridge High School.

“Out these doors, up those stairs, through that wing, down the hill, right at the pitchfork.”

With his peers packing the corridors to see him off to the World Para Swimming Championships, he basically just winged it. Students cheered and took photos. Some scurried around trying to figure out what direction Caleb was heading. Others simply took advantage of the early dismissal. At one point, the drumline met up with him as he snaked through the grid-like hallways.

The pre-determined path was kaput, but naturally he ended up at the first place anybody should look for him, through the double silver doors on the pool deck. If he’s not at home, and it’s not a Sunday, that’s where he’s spent the most time recently.

While the rest of the Raiders had a break from the start of the Elkhart County 4-H Fair in late July through the start of school, Caleb was training. Then he transitioned right into Northridge’s preseason regiment — all in preparation for today when he competes in the 100-meter backstroke and 50-meter butterfly in Mexico City.

“I’ve been doing more yardage than ever. I’ve just been training a lot better,” Caleb said.

“I’m in the best shape of my life right now.”

Caleb was born with Nager syndrome, “a rare condition that mainly affects the development of the face, hands and arms,” according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. He has four fingers on one hand and what he jokingly calls “three and a half” on the other. He has limited range of motion in his arms, which are locked at nearly 90-degree angles at the elbow.

And at 17 years old, he has his name on three short-course American records in the S7 classification. Today, he’ll enter the 100 backstroke, his main event, ranked No. 4 in the world with a medal on his mind. He’s also slotted No. 7 in the 50 butterfly.

It’s unquestionably the biggest meet Caleb has ever been a part of, and a strong performance could lead to a recurring role with Team USA at other major international events. Soon it’ll be time to have a discussion about the feasibility of making the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo and how that impacts the senior’s college plans, Northridge coach Kyle Hembree said.

“I think it’s totally possible,” Hembree said.

***

Caleb underwent 24 surgeries by the time he was 10. On his mouth to repair a cleft palate, on his arms to allow for more movement.

He doesn’t remember anything about any of the procedures other than waking up in a gurney. He prefers to maintain only a baseline knowledge of his medical history and little more.

“I don’t know, it’s just sad,” Caleb said. “The doctors, when I was born, I was supposed to be 4-foot tall; I’m 5-2. I was supposed to not have a social life; I’m probably one of the most social people you’ll ever meet. … I’m friends with everyone. When I look it up, it’s just so sad, the definition of what I have. I think everyone else has a disability and not me.”

Caleb dabbled in soccer and basketball growing up, but his horseshoe kidney left contact sports out of the equation as he got older. By middle school, he was solely invested in swimming. It was one of his only options, yes, but he’d also been swimming for Northridge Area Swim Association since he was 8. Plus, it was something he could share with his older brother, Seth.

Under the tutelage of middle school coach Charles Grace and former Northridge coach Joe Keller, among others, Caleb’s talent was unearthed. He made U.S. Paralympic Trials in 2012 and 2016 and this summer earned a spot in the World Para Swimming Championships by qualifying at the U.S. trials in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“It’s inspiring to see someone who — I’ve seen him grow up, I’ve seen him get made fun of to his face by other kids,” said Seth Cripe, a sophomore swimmer at Olivet Nazarene University. “I’ve seen him not be able to do things with his hands that other people can do. And so it’s really inspiring to see someone can aspire to such a high level of swimming with that.

“It’s also inspiring in the way that when I’m thinking I’m in a slump or when I’m thinking I can’t go faster, well, he’s able to go faster. And he’s having to train with only like 30 percent of movement in his elbows, and I have a perfectly able body. He can do all the stuff, he can train the yards and time that I do; I don’t need to make excuses or I don’t need to complain about this stuff if he can do it.”

***

Northridge developed into one of the state’s elite programs under Keller, with the boys team currently owning a streak of 15 straight sectional championships.

While Caleb’s physical limitations keep him from being a scoring factor in regular-season meets, he adds to the Raiders’ prestige nonetheless.

“I think one of the biggest effects that he has is he just shows them that anything’s possible,” Hembree said. “He’s doing the same workout that they’re doing. Somebody down the lane is maybe complaining about how hard it is or whatever, and there’s Caleb just kind of looking at them like ‘What are you talking about?’ He shows everybody here you can accomplish it if you’re going to work for it.”

As Keller said before leaving to become head coach at Fishers High School, Caleb doesn’t receive any special treatment — nor would he welcome any.

Hembree said the Raiders divide into three groups during practices. Caleb always wants to be in the fastest one.

“I think, really, he’s a huge motivation,” Keller said. “He really probably demonstrates the fact that other athletes probably have more disabilities than what he has. He’s got a physical disability. Some people have mental disabilities in that they don’t believe in themselves, they don’t have confidence. While others have the disability of not being very positive, or negative in a lot of things that they do and their outlook. Really everybody is disabled in some way, and Caleb makes you realize that based on what he is capable of doing.”

For as far as Caleb’s insatiable drive and natural ability have taken him, at least a portion of his success can be attributed to the culture at Northridge, where excellence is the expectation.

“I’ve never been nervous at a meet,” Caleb said. “I have not been nervous at a trial.

“I know if I can get myself there, why be nervous?”

***

Caleb flew to Colorado Nov. 22 for a week of training in comparable altitude to Mexico City. He landed in Mexico Nov. 28 with 21 other Team USA athletes, and both of his events are today.

He expected to be one of, if not the youngest member of the traveling party. And he’ll have family on hand to support him as he crosses off a longstanding goal of competing for his country.

“I’ve been thinking for the past 10 years, I’ve been literally dreaming of this day to go down there and put on a USA cap with my name on it,” Caleb said. “If you ask any swimmer in the country, the greatest sense of accomplishment is having your name on an American cap, and I got that. I earned the right to have my name on the American cap. That’s the greatest accomplishment I’ve ever felt.”

The 50 butterfly is secondary to performing well in the 100 backstroke, Caleb said. That’s the event he hopes to medal in, the one that could pave the way to an elongated stay with Team USA. He’s identified 1:23.40 as the time he needs to take “the first step in the career I’m going to want to have.”

Caleb said he can’t remember the last time he took a full week off of swimming. There’s no break on the horizon, either, as he’ll dive back into the thick of the high school season when he returns.

He’s always chasing something, and the next time he passes through those double silver doors he’ll know exactly what it is.

“When I get home on the 8th I’ll look up that night what my next goal is,” he said.

Stephen Brooks can be reached at stephen.brooks@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Stephen on Twitter @StephenM_Brooks

Source : http://www.goshennews.com/sports/local_sports/swimming-northridge-s-cripe-establishing-himself-as-decorated-paralympic-swimmer/article_1264bebe-cd03-576c-b760-0a33ea1ffbb5.html

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