By Brian Trusdell | Feb. 26, 2016, 3:50 p.m. (ET)
Tucker Dupree competes in the men's 100-meter backstroke S12 at the IPC Swimming World Championships at Tollcross Swimming Center on July 15, 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland.


When Tucker Dupree wakes up each morning, he heads to the pool for up to two hours of swimming. Then he hits the gym for another two hours of weight training, before heading back to the pool for another 90 minutes of training.

It’s that dedication that led him to three medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, but the medals and the attention aren’t what keep him going.

“I enjoy the journey,” the 26-year-old two-time Paralympian from Raleigh, North Carolina, said. “That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. All you’re really doing is winning a piece of metal. Society puts it on a pedestal, but people don’t remember how many medals you won.”

That doesn’t mean Dupree doesn’t have a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro this summer on his mind. His next test on that road will be this weekend when he competes in two demonstration races at the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Swimming and Diving Open Championships at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

It will be a step not only in his journey but also for athletes with disabilities in general, since the events will be the first time any NCAA sanctioned conference championship at any level has included Paralympic competition.

Ted Fay, a professor of sports management at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland and the special adviser for the ECAC on inclusive sport, says the plan is to have events for athletes with disabilities at next year’s ECAC swimming championships and inclusion at the NCAA championships within five years.

“Any exposure for Paralympics is why it’s happening,” Dupree said. “I don’t take anything for granted. I’m a small piece of the puzzle.”

This weekend’s events are considered demonstration because they will include college and college-aged athletes not affiliated with the ECAC. In among his workout schedule, Dupree takes online classes from DeVry University, with the goal of a degree in communications and marketing.

Seven men and seven women will compete in the 100-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke under a system that allows athletes with different disabilities to compete against each other. Among those expected to compete is Brad Snyder. The three-time Paralympic medalist in London returns to the pool he swam at while in college at the Naval Academy.

Dupree has lost 80 percent of his sight, the result of the rare affliction of Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. He began competitive swimming at 14, but one morning when he was 17 he awakened to find he could not see out of his left eye.

Within four months, the vision in his right eye deteriorated.

As someone who had already begun receiving recruitment letters from colleges, Dupree was determined to swim intercollegiately and eventually did at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. 

“I was blind at that point,” Dupree said.

In 2007, while attending Governor Morehead School for the Blind, he was introduced to Paralympic swimming, and in less than a year, he had qualified for and eventually competed in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games for Team USA.

Four years later, he went to London, where he claimed a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and bronze medals in the 50 and 100 freestyle events.

He holds the world record in the 50 and 100 butterfly, plus nine American and Pan-American records.

For Dupree, competitive swimming is his method of focus.

“To me, having a constant in life was so important,” he said. “I can just put my face in the water. I don’t have to talk to anybody. It’s a reflecting point to not think about that I could be completely blind tomorrow.”

He has other distractions besides swimming and school, like his motivational speaking career that he maintains from his home in Chicago, which makes self-sufficiency so much easier with things like public transportation.

Fay says the ECAC event is the first step in a larger effort to make events for college athletes with disabilities more commonplace, an endeavor that would greatly benefit Team USA’s Paralympic squad.

“At most schools it’s on the club — not intercollegiate — level,” said Fay, who helped coach U.S. Paralympic skiers in the 1980s. “This is a new intentional effort to systematically include athletes with disabilities who previously had no opportunities.”

Dupree refers to the effort as a “movement” in which he is just a cog.

“It’s so important having exposure to show ‘This can happen’,” he said. “We are the largest minority in the world. How can you not expose kids to that?”

Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.