Local one-armed swimmer aims to compete at highest level

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - We all have those stirs in the night, the things that hold us back from greatness.

Swimmer Ben Ramirez trains with Tennessee Aquatics

"Every day is a struggle," said Ben Ramirez. "People always say things like 'you can't do this, you can't do that'."

For Ben Ramirez, a rising Bearden High School senior, it's no different.

"I always prove them wrong," he said.

For Ben there are other challenges, like having just one arm; but that's not slowing him down.

"Having one arm isn't going to stop me from making it where I want to be."

Ben was born in China, where his family had adopted him as a baby.

"We said 'this one is two and he's just missing part of his arm'." said Ben's mom Susan Evans. "We were just charmed by him. He was just such a sweetie."

He was born with one arm. Evans called him a fearless child, except for one place.

"He actually was afraid of the water," she said.

"That was a big fear," said Ramirez. "It was the idea that I had one hand, I'm going to drown. When I was little, I almost drowned in my relative's pool."

Ben went from nearly losing his life in the water to finding it.

Instead of backing down Ben learned to swim. As a teenager, he joined Tennessee Aquatics, Knoxville's year-round competitive swim team.

This time it wasn't the water he feared, but he had a fear of fitting in.

"When I first started swimming, I'd be like 'I have one arm, I can't do this' and they'd be like 'try it'," he said.

Every day, nearly 20 hours per week, he trains with his team under Coach Ben Whiteside.

"We quickly found out that he was ready to train as hard as we were going to push him," said Whiteside.

What he lacks in reach he makes up for in kick.

"I don't get any slack, there's no 'you have one arm, you can take it easy.' There's none of that," said Ramirez.

He had a special prosthesis made for him to lift weights and train outside of the water.

"With my, I guess bag of tricks, I can do everything I need to and it's really cool because before I could only do right arm, but now I can do both and focus on body symmetry," he said. "I've noticed more muscle build up in my left side and in general, and I feel more confident doing certain tasks with it now, before I was just doing one-handed so it's really helped."

It's not just a physical challenge, it's a mental one, too. In his races, he plans ahead for his last stroke before he takes his first.

"I have to extend one of my strokes so I can land on my right arm and touch it just right," he explained.

He qualified to swim at the Tennessee high school state championships meet. Even his best times aren't enough to win.

"When I'm at meets and I look at the times, and people in my lanes and see this guys four seconds faster than me and I'm like, 'dang lane eight, outside smoke hopefully,' but there's always someone better than you." He said.

He could have given up, fearful of the defeat. Instead he looked fear in the face and dove in. He found his lane in para swimming.

"I swam against other people I rarely ever saw in the swimming world, people who have disabilities like mine," he said.

His classification is Sport Class S9, which means he competes only against other swimmers built like him.

"It's really inspiring to see people who people look at and say 'they can't live up to anything' and then they get in the water and they're amazing. It's just, I have no words to say about it, it's amazing."

This fall Ramirez competed in a para-meet in Georgia. He swam in six events and came away with six wins.

"Ben, the new challenger at the meet, was who everyone was talking about," said Whiteside.

Not only the fastest swimmer at the meet, he is just shy of becoming the fastest ever. He nearly broke American para-records in every event he swam.

"Once he realized he was really close to American records in his classification, I really saw a light go on. It was already there, but I don't think he realized how close he was, and in how many events," said Whiteside.

Ramirez sights are set on Tokyo 2020.

"This summer I decided, hey, I think I can make it to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo," he said.

Whether that happens or not, what he has already earned is more important than records and medals.

"Meeting a bunch of people who have disabilities who are just as into the sport as you are. It's great finding that little community that you didn't know existed," said Ramirez.

A community, a sport, a family.

"It's a family, it really is. It's just that kind of sport, I guess," he said.

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