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Swimming Career Was Never The Goal For Tye Dutcher

By Jessica Price | Oct. 23, 2020, 11:08 a.m. (ET)

Tye Dutcher celebrates in Men´s 100 m Backstroke S10 at the Para Swimming World Championship Mexico City 2017 on Dec.  2, 2017 in Mexico City.

For Tye Dutcher, swimming was always an afterthought.

“I’d only swim to stay in shape for (water) polo season,” said the Paralympian and world medalist.

Dutcher didn’t know it as a kid hoping to make the Olympic team in water polo, but the sport he always took for granted would one day become his ticket to Paralympic stardom.

The youngest of five children growing up in Merced, California, Dutcher started swimming because he wanted to be like his siblings — all of whom played water polo. 

“I just followed after their footsteps,” he said. 

Even after losing his leg at 11 in a lawnmower accident, Dutcher’s goal was to get to the Olympic level in water polo. In fact, he said, his love of being in the water only increased after the accident. 

“Once I got in, I just felt so free.” 

He hoped to become the first amputee to compete amongst able-bodied athletes in Olympic water polo. That is, until high school, when he moved to Washington state and things changed. At that point, “I started to really see that my swimming career could actually take off.” 

His senior year, Dutcher made state in the 100-meter backstroke, even though he was competing against able-bodied athletes. He says he was half a second away from beating his school’s 100-meter backstroke record. From there, his swimming career took off. Just a week after graduating from high school, Dutcher moved to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. There, he got to rub shoulders with some of the best swimmers in the United States, including many he admired. 

“They all gave me amazing motivation,” he said. 

Dutcher trained in Colorado Springs for a year before making the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 “by like a hair.” Making the team was “the biggest blessing in the world,” he said.

Dutcher didn’t medal in Rio. But “it didn’t matter to me,” he said. “Because I was there.” He compared going to Rio and coming away empty-handed with going to the moon and tripping over a pebble. Instead of eyeing the podium, Dutcher focused on supporting his teammates, plus “being there and enjoying the entire experience and understanding that this is just the start of my journey.” He would follow up with two bronze medals at the 2017 world championships, and two gold and one silver at the 2019 Parapan American Games.

If I can at least inspire one person in my life, then I know that I've achieved success.

As he trains hard for Tokyo, though, he knows that just making the team isn’t going to be enough this time. 

“My goal is to be on that podium, 100%,” he said. “And this extra year of training from COVID has been the biggest blessing in disguise for me.” 

To help meet his goal, Dutcher moved from the training center to Phoenix in 2018 and started working with a private coach. He described the move as a game changer, saying the new coaching situation helped him become a better swimmer, but also a better person. 

“He’s a life coach for me,” Dutcher said. “I still learn something new every day.” 

Plus, while he’s there, Dutcher works with able-bodied elite swimmers, something he uses to his advantage. 

“They push me every single day,” he said. “That’s who I need to be around to train harder so I can beat my competitors.”

It’s been an unexpected trajectory from water polo Olympic hopeful to Paralympic swimmer. But Dutcher takes it in stride, and believes that his journey has all been for a greater purpose. 

“Wherever I’m at in life, that’s where God has led me,” he said. “And that’s where I’m going to be.” 

Looking forward, Dutcher wants to go to the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. And he has goals outside of swimming as well: between training sessions, he fits in shifts as a barista at Dutch Bros. Coffee, where he hopes to rise up in the company. And he wants to work more as a coach and motivational speaker, though COVID-19 has put some of those activities on hold. 

“If I can at least inspire one person in my life, then I know that I’ve achieved success,” he said.

But for Dutcher, everything he does is for an even bigger goal. When asked what he wants people to take away from watching him swim, he didn’t hesitate. 

“That I love Jesus,” he said. “That I’m a man of faith. That whatever I’m doing in my life, wherever I’m at, whatever I say, that it’s just for the glory of God … when I get on the block and when the buzzer goes, that I’m swimming my race for Christ and to further whatever he wants me to further in this life, and bring others to him. That’s all it is.”

Jessica Price

Jessica Taylor Price is a sportswriter from Somerville, Massachusetts, whose work has appeared in various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Tye Dutcher