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Blind swimmer inspires school

Joe Chadbourne of Akron's Firestone High is member of swim team and valedictorian despite blindness


 

AKRON, Ohio -- Joe Chadbourne is a standout senior, a member of the swim team, and valedictorian at Akron's Firestone High School. But it's not just those accomplishments that separate him from the crowd.

It's not his love of roller coasters, sporting events and video games that sets Joe Chadbourne apart from his classmates. Not even his rolling sense of humor.

"He's brilliant. He's just an amazing kid," said Cindy Virdo, the head swim coach at Firestone. "He's just like every other teenager. Except he just can't see."

Unlike other Firestone High School students, Joe Chadbourne is blind.

Bill and Therese Chadbourne decided when their son was diagnosed at just three months old the genetic condition Leber Congenital Amaurosis wouldn't change his ability to look forward.

"They made sure from the start that I wasn't going to be treated differently from everybody else. And they helped me to get that mentality," said Joe.

"Joey, if I could make you see I'd do it in a heartbeat, I'd do whatever it takes," his dad Bill remembers thinking. "But we can't do anything So this is what we have to work with, this is what we're going to do. We're going to make the best of it we can and that was it."

They started early intervention classes at the Cleveland Sight Center, but mostly they made life as normal as possible.

"We just never made him feel like he was blind," said mom Therese.

"It doesn't sound like anyone cuts you any slack," said WKYC Channel 3's Sara Shookman in an interview with Joe. "No, I don't expect slack. I don't really want any slack. If someone gives me slack, I don't feel like I've completed the task."

"Neighbors thought we were crazy I'm sure, but he did everything the kids in the neighborhood did," said Therese, remembering Joe climbing trees and riding his bike down neighboring streets with friends.

"One of my friends gave me the idea of swimming. So I gave it a try and I kinda got addicted to it," said Joe. 

His friend Patrick Schultz first met him at the pool one summer before middle school. He also talked him into this one.

"There are no limitations on anyone. He's done a lot of things that people have said he can't do it. There's no way," said Schultz.

"At first I'll be honest, it was fear. How are we going to make this work?" said Virdo. 
 
His coaches created a tool, a tennis ball on a stick, helps Joe know when it's time to flip. There's no run, weight room training, or early morning swim he misses.

"He's capable of doing anything," she said. 

"We just treat him as a teammate and I think that's how he wants to be treated," said friend and fellow swimmer Mark Bellanger.

In the classroom, Joe's far from ordinary. One of just a few students up for the rigor of the Akron's only IB program.

"We accepted him based on his academic work," said coordinator Judy Harrison. She only later learned Joe was blind.

Teachers built course work around his needs. Not simply reading, writing and arithmetic - try organic chemistry diagrams and Calculus graphs. A critical part of that team translates his tests, books, and assignments into Braille.

Bonita Ferracane has worked with Joey since Kindergarten. "You know it takes a village to raise a child," said Ferracane. "He's part of mine."

"He wouldn't be where he is today without all those people at that school," said Bill.

Also in the Firestone village -- Assistant Principal Robert Zupke swam, tandem biked and ran a triathlon as Joe's partner.

"I think what's different about Joe is his drive. He doesn't complain about anything. He's always got an upbeat attitude," said Zupke. "He's always bopping through the hall."

That's where his younger brother Jeffrey, also a swimmer, helps him find his way.

"I'm a protector of him. I watch out for him in the hallways, if I get close to him, I get scared that he's going to run into something," said Jeffrey.

Joe will graduate in June, but will, no doubt, leave a lasting impression on his school. 

"I think Joe's legacy will be one that he taught kids that they could do more than they think they can do," said Zupke.

"I think Joe's legacy will be one that he taught kids that they could do more than they think they can do," said Zupke.

"The key is just to put the effort and willpower in order to do that, and persevere through it. If someone does that, they will succeed," said Joe. 

He's planning to either attend college at the University of Akron or Ohio State. He wants to study actuarial science, and possibly work for a sports team or insurance agency.

 

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