by James Hill
ROCKWALL, Texas – At first glance, nothing is different. The dark-headed male swimmer navigates the waters just as any other swimmer in the pool, blasting full speed ahead in a race against the clock.
Even when he exits the pool after his event, nothing is obvious to the casual observer that this swimmer is any different that the hundreds of other swimmers participating in the 2015 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Swimming & Diving championships.
It is not until he gets closer to the corner of the team seating area that you notice a teammate arrive to help the young man negotiate a path back to the team's bench. Even then, it's just two teammates walking together – nothing more, nothing less. But in this case, there is more than meets the eye – much more.
When McMurry University Head Coach Bev Ball was recruiting Christian Chavez to join the War Hawks' swimming team, the veteran coach was, as she normally does, simply looking at the prospective student-athlete's top times. The San Antonio native out of Johnson High School had produced impressive times and Coach Ball was interested in speaking with him.
When Christian arrived on campus and walked into her office, however, she found herself surprised. "You didn't know my son was visually impaired?" said Carlos Chavez, the father of Christian.
Ball did not know this, but Christian responded, "That's alright coach, I can do anything anybody else can do."
Christian, now a junior on the McMurry swimming team, was born without an eye socket and can only see shadows out of his left eye. He will eventually become completely blind. However, his handicap does not slow him down as Christian just competed at this past weekend's 2015 SCAC Swimming and Diving Championships. "I'm always wanting to get better," said Christian. "I feel fast and I always want to drop time, I feel that competitive fire and edge that every athlete has."
Born and raised in San Antonio as the oldest of seven kids. Christian was raised by his mother, Camille Maldonado, and is surrounded by a very athletic group of siblings. "We're all competitive," said Christian. "Two of my siblings swim, two of them are bodybuilders, one is a basketball star, and one is a computer wiz. We do a little bit of everything."
As Christian grew up, he was active in many different sports, learning taekwondo and playing golf at a younger age and playing basketball and running track throughout middle and high school. However, around eighth grade, he was looking for something new to try. After a parent-teacher conference, a teacher recommended swimming as an activity. Christian decided to give it a try, and, seven years later, he has fallen in love with the sport.
After a successful high school campaign, he was hoping to continue his swimming at the college level, but with an eye, foremost, toward finding the right school academically. "I knew (McMurry) had a good exercise science program, which is my major, and I knew I wanted to keep swimming through high school" said Christian. "I made a few calls to some schools and McMurry just happened to be the best fit for me."
He has become a motivating factor among not only to the War Hawk swimmers but the entire McMurry athletic program. "Christian is an amazing young man who has not allowed his impairment to stand in his way of becoming an integral part of our swim program, our athletics department and our campus," said McMurry Athletic Director Sam Ferguson. "Frankly, it's easy to forget that he is considered legally blind because he works so hard to not let that be an excuse, either in swimming or campus life. From his marked improvement in the pool during his career here, to his support of our other sports teams, to his diligent efforts in the classroom - Christian is a beloved member of the War Hawks' athletics family."
However, his teammates and coaches do not look at him any differently. "The kids are very impressed with him, but at the same time they pay no attention to his impairment," said Coach Ball. "He is one of them and they do not pamper him in any way."
Which is exactly how Christian likes it.
"I've made a lot of close friends on this team that I will keep in touch with," said Christian. "I also met my first girlfriend on the swim team. I'm pretty happy and blessed."
As he can only see shadows out of his left eye, Christian navigates the pool by relying on what he can see when his head is turned in addition to keeping track of his stroke count. It can be a daunting task, but Christian powers through. One of his big accomplishments came last Friday when he broke the five minute mark for the first time in his career with a time of 4:52.31 in the 400 IM consolation final.
Christian has inspired many people; however, there are people that have motivated him throughout his life. "My mom (inspires me). She is the hardest worker ever, seven kids and a single mom, I don't know how she does it," said Christian. "I should thank her every day, but she knows how much I love her in my heart."
His coaches also played a huge role in his life. "My first swim coach Dustin Holland came to support me at the championships (this weekend)," said Christian. "I was able to chat with him before I warmed up. Coach Ball has been a great influence as well. She has put up with me for three years now and still has one more to go."
Christian does face his share of challenges as well, light sensitivity being one of them. "During the day, the sun is a big issue, sometimes I'm blinded and need assistance," said Christian. "In the pool, if I ever get tired I have to rely on my stroke count, which can be kind of annoying."
Though the challenges exist, they do not stop Christian. He sets daily goals, three involving swimming and three involving his academics. An exercise science major, he currently holds a 3.7 GPA and is constantly improving in the pool. After graduation, Christian wants to go to graduate school and eventually become a physical therapist. He also wants to be a personal trainer and train to compete in the Paralympics.
"(Swimming) is different from most sports; you have to go full speed at all times to get better," said Christian. "Racing against the clock is my preference because I always want to get better. Competing against teammates and in competitions is what I love. I love to compete."
For Christian, the race to compete, the race to improve, the race to succeed is never ending. And it's always full speed ahead.