(Editor's note: UW Athletics release)
LARAMIE, Wyo. - Jack O’Neil will don something very special this week. As the University of Wyoming freshman swimmer readies himself to compete at the 2021 U.S. Paralympic National Championships, he’ll do so with a white swim cap equipped with a brown Steamboat logo.
The cap is reserved for the largest of competitions – the Western Athletic Conference Championships, NCAA Championships and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. O’Neil’s meet in Greensboro, North Carolina, encompasses that type of gravity.
The 2021 U.S. Paralympic Swim National Championships span from Dec. 17-19. O’Neil is set to compete in the 400-, 100- and 50-yard freestyles along with the 100-yard backstroke.
“It’s a huge deal,” head coach Dave Denniston said. “The team is fired up and excited to see how he’s going to do.”
The National Championships is the largest such event since the Paralympic Games in Tokyo this past summer. The Greensboro competition acts as a way to classify athletes for future Paralympic meets such as the Paralympic Trials for the Paris 2024 Games.
O’Neil was born with a left leg that was shorter than his right and one that didn’t grow at the same rate. This, however, didn’t squelch O’Neil’s competitive fire to participate in sports as a child.
“I grew up doing able-bodied sports,” O’Neil said. “Swimming alongside able-bodied teammates, that’s how I wanted it. I wanted to be a normal kid. I didn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t.”
As he grew older, O’Neil began to race in various Paralympic competitions. He took part in the Can-American Games, a Swimming World Cup and other National Championship meets.
As O’Neil neared the end of his high school days, he knew he wanted to swim in college. And he knew that was no small task.
“I knew I wanted to swim in college ever since I started swimming. It’s every kid’s dream,” O’Neil said. “I got to my junior year of high school, and I went to my coach and brought the idea up to him – disabled athletes swimming in college.
“I knew it was definitely not going to be easy.”
Denniston had known of O’Neil from his time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Denniston ran a program where individuals interested in becoming a Para coach could bring their athletes and stay in Colorado Springs for a week or two and learn how to grow and improve as a coach.
O’Neil was one of those athletes. So years later – when it came to finding a collegiate swim program – a strong pre-existing relationship made the decision easy.
“Jack came up to me and asked, ‘Do you think I could swim in college?’” Denniston said. “I said, ‘I’d love to have you here,’ and he’s been awesome to have.”
O’Neil has enjoyed every minute of his young collegiate swimming career. He’s admittedly more tired than he’s ever been, but his time in brown and gold thus far couldn’t have gone any better.
And his presence, work-ethic and character have had positive reverberations across the roster.
“He’s somebody that never complains about anything, and he always finds a way,” Denniston said. “I think that’s what the team appreciates. He’s limited with one leg, but he wants to be involved with everything in the weight room and everything in the pool.
“I think people have seen a big value of being part of the team through him. He shows that you can do anything you want if you really want to do it.”
The U.S. Paralympic Swim National Championships are further proof of that. O’Neil hasn’t let his disability stop him from competing at the highest of levels.
O’Neil will swim in Greensboro for himself, fulfilling a dream he’s had for as long as he can remember. He’ll do it for the disabled community, showcasing that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
O’Neil will also compete for a university that gave him the opportunity to be a collegiate athlete.
“Wyoming is a huge part of this,” O’Neil said. “They took me in, made me part of their team, and I’m excited that I get to represent them.”
O’Neil won’t be alone on deck in Greensboro, as Denniston will be there, as well. He’s remained close with the Paralympic community for many years, attending numerous Paralympic competitions, soaking in an atmosphere of athletes that wouldn’t let adversity stop them from chasing athletic dreams.
This is the first time, however, when Denniston will have one of his Wyoming student-athletes with him, and he’s eager to see what O’Neil can do.
“The Paralympics have always had a pretty soft spot in my heart for a long, long time,” Denniston said. “Being on deck with the other athletes and seeing this again is going to be exciting for me. But after seeing how much progress Jack has made in the pool, I’m excited to see him swim and race.”