Joey Peppersack celebrates after winning a silver medal at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on August 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
This month, Joey Peppersack will graduate from the University of Mary Washington, his training base for the last four years, and will move out to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
He will forever be thankful for his four years with the UWM Eagles, regardless of how his road to the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 or future career in economic development pans out.
“College coaches teach you how to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Peppersack said. “A long bus ride, colder water than usual, smaller pools, traveling a lot, training trips — they teach you to be uncomfortable, and that certainly helps when you go to these larger meets like in 2019 when I went to Lima for two weeks for the Parapan American Games.”
For the record, Peppersack’s biggest podium appearance to date came in Lima, when he struck silver in the 100-meter backstroke — his best event.
Born without a right shin bone, Peppersack’s right leg was amputated when he was four years old and he began swimming at age nine. The Richmond, Virginia, native is the first to say he’s been swimming for what feels like forever — he was the first amputee trained lifeguard in his city — and has made a quick ascent to the U.S Paralympics Swimming National Team after being homeschooled throughout high school. He won three gold medals at the 2017 Can-Am Open, a silver and bronze at the 2018 World Para Swimming Series, and two silvers and a bronze at the 2019 World Series.
But no summer is more important for Peppersack than the one that lies ahead.
“I’m been doing this for half my life, so my biggest goal right now is qualifying for the Tokyo team,” said Peppersack, who trains six days a week at UMW. “The pandemic has definitely made things more difficult than they would have been, but I’m lucky enough to have a coach who had pretty much planned everything out so that our team has every opportunity to at least practice every day of the week.”
Peppersack has one Eagles teammate who is also a Para swimmer, Peter Lermo, who was a freshman at Mary Washington this past season. Peppersack will compete at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming from June 17-20 in Minneapolis, where he’ll put everything to the test he learned from the UWM coaches over the last four years.
His first coach who recruited him at UWM was Abby Brethauer, who previously coached two-time Paralympian Dalton Herendeen.
“I figured if (Brethauer) could do that for him, then she could do it for me,” Peppersack said at the time.
In 2018, after leaving for Tufts University, she was replaced by Justin Anderson, one of the most active coaches in the U.S. Para swimming community. Anderson was the head coach of Team USA at the last Parapan American Games and has also coached world championship bronze medalist Zach Shattuck and U.S. national team member Connor Gioffreda. Both those athletes were also college swimmers at Maryland’s Frostburg State University.
Peppersack, who calls himself the “1LegNinja” on Instagram, said the majority of his peers on the U.S. national team such as Gioffreda and Shattuck go through the collegiate pipeline, and that it provides them the much-needed preparation for high-pressure meets while also inadvertently holding their able-bodied teammates accountable.
“It’s super important to have a very diverse team and somebody who holds other athletes accountable,” he said.
“At some schools it’s difficult to allow someone who may not keep up with everyone on your team, but the moment you do, it’s a major training boost to almost every other swimmer on the team. I have friends here on the team who will say, ‘You know, Joey, I was thinking about slacking today, until I saw you creeping up beating me.’”