Loyola Magazine

Different strokes

Joe Wise, ’15, finds passion and purpose in the pool

As a child, Joe Wise, ’15, thought swimming back and forth across the pool was boring. He wanted to play baseball instead.

Then, when he was 9, he was diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy—a neuromuscular disease that is progressive and degenerative. “Every sport that I loved got taken away,” he remembers.

Wise’s mother encouraged him to start swimming to help with his asthma. So he did. And he was surprised to find that he loved the sport. He started enjoying the time alone in the pool, playing songs in his head, and thinking of all he has to be thankful for.

He also discovered he was a strong swimmer—and thrived on competition.

In 2004, he started training for the Beijing Paralympics and qualified to swim in one event in China in 2008. Then in August he traveled with Loyola Head Swim Coach Brian Loeffler, ’91, MBA ’94, to the London Paralympics where he competed in five events and a relay—swimming in an arena packed with an audience of 18,000 screaming fans.

Competing in front of an audience that size, and at that level, pushed Wise to excel. “The pressure was on, and I swam the greatest I have ever swum,” said Wise, now 19.

Meanwhile, his mother’s instincts about swimming were right. His doctors credit his swimming with helping to keep the symptoms of his mitochondrial myopathy at bay.

“If you look at a mitochondrial patient, I am the picture of health,” Wise said. His ankles, hips, and diaphragm are weak, affecting his gait. His blood pressure is high. And he uses a volume ventilator for one or two hours a day and all night while he is asleep.

When doctors performed a scan of his brain, they told him that it looks like a stroke patient’s. “They have no idea how I’m standing, how I’m walking and talking. They think it’s all because I’m swimming.”

Friendship made in China

It was in Beijing where Loeffler first met Wise’s parents. Wise was a 15-year-old high school student in Menlo Park, Calif., and Loeffler was there to support swimmer Philip Scholz, ’11, who competed in the Paralympics there.

When NCAA regulations allowed Loeffler to reach out to Wise about considering attending Loyola, they started conversations. Wise’s mother talked with doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital to ensure that they could offer the same level of medical care he was receiving from his doctors at Stanford Hospital. Wise visited campus and knew he had found his home for the next four years.

“I figure a Jesuit education is probably one of the best educations you can get in the country,” said Wise, who is majoring in political science at Loyola.

When Wise suddenly fell ill after the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championships in February, his coach drove him to the emergency room. The doctors thought it was appendicitis, but they looked further and realized he had celiac disease.

“That turned everything upside down,” Wise said. He took the rest of the semester off and went home to participate in tests for a new medication every week. His first priority was getting healthy. But even as his health improved, he found he was still not swimming well. He considered skipping the Paralympic Trials, but Loeffler encouraged him to go. So he went—and swam well enough to make it into five events and a relay.

“All of my goals were met even before I went to London,” Wise said.

Overcoming challenges

Meanwhile, Loeffler was honored to be selected as part of the coaching staff for the U.S. Paralympic team.

“I credit Philip for opening those doors for me,” Loeffler said. “As much as I have done for them, they have done for me. They have made it possible for me to do things I never thought I’d do.”

Loeffler worked with Lt. Brad Snyder to help him train for London—where he won two gold medals and one silver. Snyder, who lost his sight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, was seeking treatment at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He and Wise and some of the other Maryland-area Paralympic swimmers formed a close bond in London and stay in close contact.

For now, Wise has his eyes set on his goals for the 2013 MAAC Championships. Then after that he’ll start looking ahead to 2016—the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.

“Every athlete goes through a struggle of training. Training’s not easy,” Loeffler said. “But for some of these athletes, every day is a struggle.”