“What would you do if you had a blind coach?”
That was the question that Catawba head coach Michael Sever presented to his team upon the introduction of new assistant coach Tharon Drake. Drake is the multi-medal-winning swimmer who owns 13 American records and is now the first blind swimming coach in NCAA history. As you may expect, Drake received an interesting welcome to his new team.
Sever posed the question that obviously led to many others. He played a video of Drake capturing his silver medal victory for Team USA in Rio at the 2016 Paralympic Games, followed by an introductory video Drake made himself. The murmurs immediately began to stir amongst the team.
“You could tell there were questions they were afraid to ask,” Drake told NCAA.com. “But once we got rolling, they’ve opened up and asked those questions. I’ll never forget the day I heard them pulling on the lane lines. They make a clicking noise. So, I called out one of the boys and they started laughing. They thought it was cool I knew exactly what he was doing.”
Drake began swimming at the young age of nine and continues today. He started losing his vision in February 2008 and by June 3, 2008, he was completely blind. For ten years, Drake has fought what he calls an uphill battle, but he’s never relented.
So, just who is Tharon Drake?
How he got his start in swimming:
“My mom didn’t know how to swim, so she put us in swim lessons at a really early age. That’s what introduced me to the sport. My dad became our club coach, and that’s really what got me interested in swimming.
“Coaching, I thought it would be a neat thing. I saw the hard work that went into it, but also the lives that got changed because of it.”
How he lost his sight:
“I have some weird brain problems. They don’t know a whole lot about it. I have hemispheric migraines, it’s not a normal migraine, on top of other stuff. My blindness is cortical. They don’t know what caused it. I had to have a test that showed certain brainwaves were absent that give you eyesight. It’s a crazy case. I have a neurologist I am going to that is 70 years old and she’s never seen anything like it before and she’s been practicing for 40 years.”
How he's turned blindness into an advantage:
“It taught me to be tough mentally and not look at obstacles the same way as others. I started losing my sight as we were leaving our state home meet as a freshman in high school. I knew it was an uphill battle. I tried swimming down the middle and busted my head on the lane ropes at least once or twice a week. I was a little bit afraid, but I knew at the end of the day it will all work out. The blindness taught me to keep pushing even when everyone else says you can’t. At the end of the day, I’m the only person who can say can’t."
“I’ve been swimming since I was nine years old, and I’ve been blind for ten years. Instead of sitting on my behind crying about how life could have been, I decided that if I was going to survive and follow my dreams, I had to figure out something no one else has.
"So, I’ve been listening to swim meets for ten years. A good example is hand entry on freestyle. It makes a lower pitch when you go thumb first, and I can tell. You don’t want to enter thumb first, you want to enter middle finger first. So, if you’re going middle finger, it’s a lot cleaner of a sound. I can catch your rhythm and arm speed. I’ll sit on the wall and I’ll listen to them turn and their legs hit the wall. I think the first week threw them off, but now they don’t think anything of it.”
His most memorable moments at the Paralympic Games:
“I remember all of those moments. I remember in 2011 when I took a bronze at the Pan American games. I was supposed to medal in several events, and I came home with one in the event I wasn’t even supposed to medal in. It was a moment of checking myself and getting things straight. From my 2012 to my 2016 time, I dropped 10 seconds in my 100 M and 50 seconds in my 400 M freestyle. I remember the 2015 bronze, I had a teammate tell me that I wouldn’t be anything but a fourth place. I got on the block and swam my race, and I was so excited I swam an extra two laps.
“[In Rio] I’ll never forget hearing the crowd with my head under water. It was deafening.”
How he feels about the next step of his journey at Catawba:
“The best part about being a blind coach is showing the world that something I was told was impossible isn’t. Just hearing that, you can choose to hear that, or ignore everyone except yourself. My wife knew I could do it, she said, 'don’t give up on your dream, the worst they can say is no.' It was an honor that Michael Sever and Catawba has given me the chance to be the first blind coach. It will give us an edge over competitors because I have a different angle, that no other coach can say they have with my hearing all the little things I pick up. I’m hoping this gives hope to others.”