Eric Gongora competes on Hillsboro High School's swim team despite being blind

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: WADE EVANSON - Eric Gongora swims freestyle during a Hilhi practice Jan. 17 at the Hillsboro Aquatic Center.Eric Gongora is a lot like other kids at Hillsboro High School. He enjoys spending time with his family, learning, and playing sports. A member of the school's swim team, he spends his free time taking laps in the pool, practicing. But unlike other swimmers, when asked what he focuses on when he is swimming in meets, it's not his time, or his performance.

"I'm trying not to drown," Eric said with a smile.

That's Eric. A sharp, quick-witted kid with an intelligent, bordering on sarcastic response for nearly everything. But what makes his answer less sardonic is that Eric is unlike any other swimmer on his team when it comes to competitive swimming.

He's blind.

The 15-year-old Hillsboro freshman was born with Glaucoma, and while sighted for the first half of his life, Eric has been for the most part blind since he was 8 years old.

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the eye's optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness. With early detection and treatment, patients can often protect against serious vision loss.

Eric wasn't so lucky.

"He had two Cornea transplants as a toddler, and they went well," said Eric's mother Martha. "But then his body just failed and he was mostly blind by first or second grade."

From there it was a struggle. Eric's mother said he was initially ridiculed by students in kindergarten for having different colored eyes, and he became angry. Martha said he often didn't want to go to school at all, and she would frequently have to retrieve him from class early.

"It was stressful on me because I couldn't do much with him at home because he needed special materials," Martha said. "And I didn't have access to them."

That's when she first sought alternatives. And in this case, that meant switching schools.

After nearly a year's worth of working with the Hillsboro School District, she was able to get him moved to Minterbridge Elementary, where he started to gain confidence, make friends, and improve his grades and behavior. Eric was an honor student and participated in the Talented And Gifted program while at Minterbridge, but his disability prohibited him from playing sports.

The Gongora family is a sports-minded family. Martha — who has five children — said sports are and have always been a big part of their lives. They swim, play baseball and basketball, run track, and even box. Martha thought it important that they find a way for Eric to get involved with athletics.

She learned about the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes and got Eric signed-up in the program. He started going to camps and participating in baseball and swimming, which she quickly realized Eric enjoyed.

"Eric loves a challenge," Martha said. "The more challenge you give him, the harder he tries."

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: WADE EVANSON - Eric Gongora takes advice from his coach Fred Anderson during a practice Jan. 17 at the Hillsboro Aquatic Center.All good? Not quite.

When Eric got to middle school the bullying returned and Eric started to again withdraw.

"I knew something was wrong, but he wouldn't tell me what it was," said Martha.

So she again went to the school and between the two of them they tried to find ways to help. He participated in track and field in the eighth grade, then when he got to the high school they looked for other sports he could compete in.

Enter swimming.

Martha got him everything he needed and he was off. But while Eric and his mother were ready to go, Hilhi head swimming coach Fred Anderson wasn't. While excited about the prospects of helping Eric, Anderson had never worked with a blind swimmer and was nervous. If Eric strayed from his swimming lane, he could potentially hurt himself or others. Anderson wasn't sure how to instruct a blind swimmer. So Anderson called the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes and got suggestions as to how to go about helping Eric.

"What I realized is that what I'm trying to teach him, I have to do myself so as to learn how to best verbalize to him what I want him to do," said Anderson. "I can't have him watch me, so I have to verbalize everything. It's been a real challenge to me and it's taken a lot of time, but I've enjoyed it."

In addition to teaching tips, they also gave him "tappers" to protect him from hitting the wall. The tappers clip onto the lane lines and sit roughly 20 inches from the wall. When Eric feels the tapper he knows the wall is near and he acts accordingly.

Eric competes in both the freestyle and backstroke, and while still learning, he has seen his improvement in just a couple months' worth of work.

"I'm a much better swimmer now than I was a month ago," said Eric. "At first I was the slowest person on the team, but now I'm doing a lot better and I'm getting faster."

His coach agrees.

"He's faster," Anderson said. "I started having him do sit-ups a few weeks ago, because you have to have strong core muscles for swimming. I've also set up intervals for him so as to push him, and it's been working."

And it's not just in the pool that he's getting better, his mother says she's seen a better version of her son since he started swimming with the team.

"He's happier, he's getting really good grades, and he's doing TAG and on the honor roll again," said Martha. "This opportunity has changed him a lot."

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: WADE EVANSON - Hilhi's Eric Gongora rests between laps during a practice at the Hillsboro Aquatic Center. The tappers the pool uses are attached to the lane line and warns Eric the wall is near.
It's changed the team as well.

Anderson has enjoyed watching Eric's teammates work with him, and said he is proud of how the kids have embraced and been inspired by the challenge they see firsthand in practice every day. The coach said they help him before and after meets, root him on during his races, and encourage him to get better.

"It's uplifting and it inspires me because you see him working so hard and he improves every meet," said Eric's teammate Rena French. "It's impressive because he works just as hard as everyone else and doesn't make excuses. It makes everyone else want to work harder."

Eric's younger sister also has Glaucoma. Martha said Eric's work at Hillsboro High is an inspiration to her.

"She looks up to Eric and so he sets a good example for her," Martha said. "She loves to swim too and she loves to watch Eric swim."

What does this all mean to the 15-year-old who's simply "trying not to drown?"

"It's been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work," Eric said. "But it's also been a challenge, and I love challenges."

And to his mother?

"I never imagined how much this would change him, and he's been an inspiration to the whole group," Martha said. "I'm so proud of him."

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