Gold medals, world records, and his face on a new Topps trading card — it’s a good life for swimmer Tucker Dupree.
A 2007 honors graduate of Garner Magnet High School, Dupree soon heads to London as a favored competitor in the 2012 Paralympic Games, projected to win as many as five gold medals.
Photo Caption: “Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t succeed,” says Paralympic athlete and Garner High graduate Tucker Dupree. Favored to win multiple gold medals in the upcoming Paralympic Games in London, he’ll compete against other athletes with physical disabilities. Photo courtesy of Ken Bland
“I started swimming at age 14, sort of by accident,” Dupree said. “My older sister, Sarah, swam, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of wearing a Speedo!”
At the insistence of Sarah’s coach, he got in the pool and caught on quickly to the sport, joining a club team of the Raleigh Swimming Association.
But at age 17, Dupree was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a rare condition that has robbed him of 80 percent of his sight. His world suddenly shrank.
“The low point was in February 2007, when I surrendered my driver’s license,” he said. “Giving up my independence was hard, as a senior in high school. That was my moment of acceptance.”
Time spent in the water helped, and a career was born.
“Swimming kept my mind out of depression, and I developed an ambition to do something with it,” Dupree said. He attended a rehab program at the Governor Morehead School post-graduation, and swam varsity at Gardner-Webb University in 2008-09.
A call from four-time Paralympics silver medalist Elexis Gillette, a blind track athlete, drew Dupree into the Paralympics world, an elite-level competition for athletes with physical and visual disabilities.
The Paralympic Games are the second largest sporting event in the world, after the Olympic Games, and are held in the same city and venues.
“Paralympics has opened so many doors,” Dupree said. “It’s very good at letting athletes showcase their talent, while having a disability.”
The 2012 Paralympic Games run Aug. 30 through Sept. 8 and will be the largest ever, featuring 4,200 athletes from 160 countries. Swimming is among the most popular sports.
Dupree will compete in five events; his favorite is the 100-meter butterfly, in which he holds the world record.
Swimming with just 20 percent peripheral vision, he says stroke counts, lane ropes and special goggles aid his efforts in the pool, along with “descriptive” coaching.
He also holds the world record in the 50-meter butterfly, along with 36 American records and seven Pan-American records. London is Dupree’s second Paralympics experience; he represented the U.S. at the 2008 games in Beijing, China.
“It’s a lot of pressure. Being at this caliber of the sport, you have to live it to learn it — that’s what Beijing was for,” he said. “I’m bigger and stronger than I was in ’08, and I’ve learned to tailor my training, and strategize the meet.”
Dupree spent more than a year at the Colorado Olympic Training Center, and currently trains under veteran coach Shawn Kornoelje at Oakland University in Michigan. Training can be monotonous, working hours for hundredths-of-a-second improvements, Dupree says.
“It’s a different lifestyle, a full-time job. Your body is your tool, and all aspects from nutrition to recovery are vital,” he said. “It’s important to do the best I can; if that puts me on the podium, great. But at the end of the day, you leave it all in the water. You can be successful, but you’ve got to have the right mindset.”
Dupree’s parents, Marlene and Chet, his manager Ken Bland and childhood friend Anthony Gambino, all of Garner, will cheer him on in the London games. Post-Paralympics, Dupree and Gambino plan to “hostel hop” through Europe.
That’s as far as Dupree’s planning goes for now. As an amateur athlete — meaning pay-your-own-way — he must also consider the fiscal sides of this life.
“To travel the world in a sport you love — I’m very fortunate,” he said. “After London, I don’t know what opportunities will come, and I have to be realistic. But I won’t announce my retirement prematurely.”
Instead, his focus is on bringing home the gold.
“Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t succeed,” Dupree said. “You have to pick: easy or right. It’s easy to give up because of a disability. It’s right to go on and succeed. It’s a chance to test your character, and more than medals or trophies, that’s success.”
Editor’s note: Tucker Dupree is one of 50 Paralympics athletes featured in a new Topps trading card series, available at local sports stores. For more information on Dupree or to donate to Team Tucker, visit TuckerDupree.com.