ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tharon Drake has walked the deck of Albuquerque Academy’s pool before, but during this weekend’s State High School Swimming and Diving Championships, Drake navigated the slippery surface with the aid of a cane.
Unlike a year ago when he competed in the same meet, the Hobbs High School sophomore is now completely blind. Tharon, in fact, lost his sight on the bus ride home from last year’s state meet, just one in a series of health complications that occurred as the result of some routine vaccinations he had in the fall of 2007.
The last thing Tharon saw was the Fuddrucker’s restaurant in Albuquerque where he and his team celebrated the conclusion of the 2008 state championships before embarking on their long bus trip back to Hobbs.
But going blind didn’t end Tharon’s swimming career – or even slow it.
Far from it.
He was back in the pool competing a week later and is still a key part of the Hobbs team. Tharon swam the second leg of Eagles’ 200-yard freestyle relay during Friday’s preliminaries and served as an alternate on the team’s two other relays.
It’s a feat that has inspired teammates like Hobbs diver Mallet Reid.
“He has the most unbelievable attitude of any swimmer I’ve met – or any person, really. He has no self-pity. It’s great to have a friend like him,” Reid said. “We look to him as a morale leader. He’s going through so much physically and he takes it all in stride.”
Going blind was just one of the side effects of the vaccines Tharon got for the flu and meningitis. It turned out that Tharon had an existing genetic condition called methylation defect that had compromised his immune system, and the shots released viruses into his system that his body couldn’t fight off.
From November 2007 through May 2008, Drake had no short-term or long-term memory.
“It was like that movie ’50 First Dates,'” said Shawn Drake, Tharon’s father and the Hobbs High head coach. “Every day he’d wake up and he didn’t know what happened.”
Tharon finally regained his short-term memory last spring, although he still cannot recall any part of his life prior to that.
Swimming, he said, has helped him cope with the drastic changes to his life. He never really considered quitting.
“I decided to keep swimming (after going blind) because that’s what kept me going when I lost my memory,” Tharon said. “That and church gives me something to look forward to. I just love to swim.”
Surprisingly, Shawn Drake said his son has actually improved his times. He still races like any of his opponents or teammates. He dives off the starting blocks and does the necessary flip turns at each wall.
Tharon does it without even counting his strokes. He relies on his sense of hearing to determine when he’s about to reach the end of the pool.
“I listen for the waves on the wall,” he said.
In some pools, that isn’t possible because there isn’t a solid wall at the end of the lane but rather a bulkhead where the water washes. In those cases, somebody taps Tharon with his cane when he’s approaching the end of the lap.
Reid said he can’t believe his friend and teammate has not just continued to compete but actually thrived under the circumstances.
“I figured he’d stop (swimming) and maybe just support the team from the land,” Reid said. “To watch him blows me away sometimes. He swims so fast. It’s really cool.”
As much as he’s surprised everyone else, Tharon himself wasn’t surprised to be back on the Albuquerque Academy pool deck, representing Hobbs at the state meet.
“I was pretty sure I would (swim at state) if I gave it everything I had,” he said. “And that’s what I did.”