Tucker Dupree was the worst swimmer in the pool. It was his freshman year at Garner Magnet High School in Garner, North Carolina, and after weeks of seeing the 14-year-old sit in the stands during swimming practice, the head coach convinced him to quit watching and get in the water. “On that first day, I displayed the closest thing to controlled drowning as you can get without a lifeguard rescue,” Dupree says. “I was the slowest kid on the team from that first practice to the end of the season. People would clap because my races took so long.”
Most 14-year-olds wouldn’t finish a season after struggling to even finish a race, let alone come back the next year for more. But Dupree did. His sophomore year, he joined a club team — albeit it was a club team for 10-year-olds—and he got a little stronger. He got a little faster. Instead of getting fed up with shortcomings, he became hungry for ability. By his senior year, Dupree was the swimming team captain, the fastest swimmer on the squad, and a promising candidate for a strong collegiate career.
That’s when everything changed.
On the morning of October 18, 2006, Dupree woke up and couldn’t see anything in the center of his left eye. He tried not to worry, went to school, and figured that he just had low blood sugar and his sight would return to normal by the end of the day. It didn’t. And it didn’t return the next week, or the next month. “That day started the process of what would become two months of testing to figure out why I had lost my vision. Doctors were telling me all of the conditions I didn’t have, but couldn’t tell me what I did have.” After countless tests, Dupree was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a rare hereditary condition. By February 2007, his condition had progressed and Dupree lost central vision in both of his eyes. Everything about his life changed. He could no longer drive, grocery shop alone, cross the street unassisted, pour a glass of water. But there was one thing that didn’t change — swimming. “I could go to the pool and be like all the other kids,” he says.
The one thing he has struggled so hard to master before his diagnosis was now the only thing that came easily as he lost his sight. Swimming had taught him the process of perseverance — to become great at something that felt unnatural. And being blind certainly felt unnatural.
He swam every day. He learned to adapt. And he persevered as he learned to swim by counting his strokes (he knows that one length of the pool is exactly 33 of his strokes; if he is tired, he adds a few more) But it wasn’t until he met another blind athlete that he realized there was more to do than just compete as a blind swimmer — there was the opportunity to represent the United States as a Paralympic athlete.
“I reached out to Lex Gillette, who is a badass blind track athlete,” Dupree says. “Can you imagine being completely blind and running around the track? I couldn’t. But then again, I could’ve never imagined swimming in a pool blind, and here I am.” Gillette had competed in every Paralympic Games since 2004, and encouraged Dupree to look into trying to compete at the Paralympic level. “He explained to me that Paralympic athletes compete in the same venues, in the same events, and in front of the same audience as Olympic athletes. It’s the second largest sporting even in the world following the Olympics. I thought, ‘I think I’m competitive enough to try this.’ ”
Dupree tried, and he succeeded. In the summer of 2007, he swam five races and broke five American records. The slowest kid in the high school pool had become the fastest blind swimmer the U.S. had seen in a quarter of a century. After qualifying for the 2008 U.S. Paralympic team, Dupree was Beijing-bound. But the then-19-year-old had a few more lessons to learn about adapting.
“Beijing chewed me up and spit me out,” he says. “I went from swimming races where it was just my parents cheering me on to swimming in front of 50,000 people in the stands. But I got to try the big dance.”
After Beijing, Dupree was as determined to make a medal happen in London in 2012 as he was to learn to win a race after his freshman year of high school. Fast forward four more years of focused training, and Dupree was flying across the pond for his second shot at standing on the podium with a medal in hand. But the Games didn’t start out as expected. Dupree duplicated his Beijing debut to a tee — placing fifth in the 400-meter freestyle on the first day of competition, followed up with another fifth place finish in the 100-meter butterfly.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Dupree admits. “I knew I had not trained for four years to have déjà vu.” In a moment of self-reflection, Dupree grasped something his coach, Kit Raulerson, said to him, and it clicked. “Coach told me, ‘You have a lane and a shot, Tucker. Just like everyone else. Race your race, touch the wall, and leave everything in the pool.’” Dupree secured a silver medal, two bronze medals, and the place on the podium he had been aiming at for eight years. “It’s such a surreal moment to have that uniform on and represent our country as the flag is raised,” he says. “Every single medal means so much to me.”
Those medals — those tangible emblems of success — are the very things that have driven Dupree for the past four years. And now, he’s ready to take on Rio.
Dupree, more so than most, knows what it’s like to have to adapt and overcome when his body breaks down. But this time it’s not his eyes, but his age, that he has to accommodate for. “After London, I knew we had to do something different when it came to training,” he says. “So now, instead of a swimming program based on quantity, I’ve got a program based on quality.”
Dupree’s races last 57 seconds at max, so his coach formulated a new regimen that is focused on short, intense bursts of applied energy and explosive movement. As he puts it, “No one needs to swim for three hours a day when you race for less than a minute.” With less time in the pool, Dupree now dedicates more time to recovery, weight training, diet, and mental focus. He is in the weight room three to four days a week, gets regular massages, eats every few hours (cereal is a personal favorite), and meditates every day. “This training season has been very powerful because it has been more focused and specialty-driven,” he says. “Before, I understood the value of making your body the vehicle for your success, but this time around I have truly put my mind into it.”
Dupree’s daily mantra is “I am.” For the athlete who was once the kid who was not a swimmer, for the Paralympian who was not a medalist, and the man who was not able to see — his drive pushed him to become what he is now: one of the fastest, most decorated blind swimmers in U.S. history.
“When the doctors told me that I was losing my sight and my life would never be ordinary, I sat down and sobbed. Well, they were right. My life isn’t ordinary. I never imagined losing my vision at age 17. But I also didn’t imagine that I would travel the world as a U.S. athlete and stand on one of the most prestigious podiums in the sports world. I get the opportunity to show people that having limitless vision for your life was what this was always about.” Now, as he sets his sights on bringing home gold from Rio, that has never been clearer.
Click here to donate to the Olympic and Paralympic athletes of Team USA.