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Catawba College Coach Is The First Blind NCAA Swimming Coach

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Cole del Charco / WFAE
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Drake gives instructions to swimmers between sets.

Tharon Drake was 14-years-old when he started to go blind. But he’s always found clarity in the pool. Now he’s helping others hone their performance at Catawba College as the first blind NCAA swim coach.

And Drake can hear good form. Seriously.

“The way his hands are hitting the water, especially this right arm right here his hands are hitting like this -- hey Aly, straighten up your hands,” Drake said to a swimmer during his warmup.

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Credit Cole del Charco / WFAE
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Tharon Drake

It started when he was sitting with a friend at the Paralympic games in which he competed in 2016. Drake asked his friend to confirm whether the times he thought a swimmer was using good or bad form was right, and he was. Now, Drake says he’s 99 percent accurate, “Just like any coach.”

It’s his first season on the job. Drake has two Paralympic silver medals, holds some U.S. records, and is the reigning world champion in the 100-meter breaststroke and the 400-meter freestyle in blind swimming divisions. Those experiences help him coach.

“Now I’m just listening and making minor, minor, minor corrections,” Drake said after Aly Helal fixed his form.

Besides his ears, Drake also uses an iPhone that counts out loud so he can time swimmers. 

And before swimmers hit the pool, Drake tells them what their workouts will be. During laps, he pacess the side -- no cane needed. 

Some on Catawba’s swim team weren’t sure what to expect from a coach who can’t see, but that faded for Amalia Fontes when Drake helped her prevent an injury. 

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Drake calls out from the deck.

“When I first came here, my shoulder was starting to hurt,” Fontes said. “He adjusted certain things about my stroke, and he got it down right away.”

She said he’s a great coach and an inspiration.

“He always kept going, no matter what the obstacles were, like, he’s an awesome coach with a big heart,” Fontes said.

He started to go blind at 14, which doctors attribute to methylation disorder -- his body doesn’t absorb vitamins correctly. The way he puts it, something in his brain stops him from seeing.

By then he was already a competitive swimmer, but this gave him intensity.

“When the blindness came and it just seemed, man why am I blind? I could take that anger out on the water,” Drake said. “I could just swim for thousands and thousands of meters.”

Other times, when hard things happened, like a good friend dying, Drake took to the pool.

“I remember going, you know, I’m taking it out on the water right here,” Drake said. “Because the water doesn’t care if I beat it up right now.”

As confident as he is now, Drake wasn’t always sure he could coach. While he had talked about it with friends and people in the swimming community for awhile, it was pressure from his wife, Paula, that finally led him to send in an application.

“He was confident, but was like, ‘Should I take that big of a step?’ and we said, ‘Let’s take a leap of faith,’” Paula Drake said.

So he took the leap and applied. That’s when Catawba’s head coach, Michael Sever, went to the Olympic Training Center to meet Drake. He liked his confidence but still wasn’t sure. He needed to see how he interacted with coaches and other swimmers to see if he could coach. 

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Credit Cole del Charco / WFAE
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WFAE
The Abernathy Physical Education Center houses the College's swimming pool.

“When I initially met with him, I knew that this was a special guy, I knew that this was a guy that I wanted to have on my team, and he’s absolutely all of that,” Sever said.

And Sever says he’s been doing a great job as his assistant coach so far. Drake can identify and point out anything that a swimmer needs to fix.

“Basically whatever I can pick up, he can pick up,” Sever said. “Just in a different way.”

That’s what Drake has been proving to people for years. Like to people back in his hometown of Hobbs, New Mexico. 

“The story was always, if you’re from Hobbs, you stay in Hobbs,” Drake said. “You can’t get out.”

Drake hated that idea, so when he won the two silver medals at the 2016 Paralympics, he brought them to schools, and let all kinds of people and kids see and touch them. They’ve been worn down so much, he said it looks like someone took a razor blade to them.

He wants them to know they can do something that matters. He’s hoping to do the same thing for schools and kids in Rowan County, soon.

“Everyone loves living inside their box, then there are the rebels like me who are getting outside the box and dancing around it,” Drake said.

He made it his mantra to just keep swimming. He hopes his accomplishments will open doors.

“I have a good friend who’s a double arm amputee who’s asked, ‘Hey, how do you think I can get into coaching?’” Drake said. “So it’s something else we can now think of, that’s opened up doors already.”

But more than that, he wants to show people they don’t have to settle for what’s normal. It’s up to each person to choose what to do when someone else says, “You can’t.”