In the late Tuesday afternoon hours, the Mountain View High School swim team gathers at the outdoor pool of a private athletic club. The boys, in their skin-tight jammers, have a meet Wednesday and so they must conserve some energy during this practice.
But senior Ryker Phillips is in the last weeks of his high school swimming career. He has a group record in sight, districts in mind, and time to shave.
Plus, he’s already missed one practice earlier this week — why’d that upset stomach have
to hit now? — so Phillips must jump into the water. Sickness be damned.
Phillips walks into the dome-covered pool, the bottom of his flesh-colored right foot blemished with scuff marks. He grabs one of the lawn chairs on the deck, and uses it to steady himself. He first whips off his towel; next goes his right leg.
Phillips releases the locking mechanism inside the 10-pound prosthetic and takes it off. Underneath his swimsuit, his ankle — which appears as a shape of a cone — matches up to his left lower thigh. Phillips props his black carbon fiber prosthetic leg against the chair and hops towards lane four.
Phillips grew up in the water. He was in the pool several weeks after he was born and was winning first-place prizes as a second-grader. In spite of having one leg, he performs as one of the top 100-yard butterfly swimmers among his Mountain View group and even placed in the event at the district meet last season.
This year, Phillips, 17, has once again qualified for the early February district meet. Prosthetic be damned.
“I pretty much knew I was a little bit different than everyone else,” he says, “but I didn’t try to let it stop me.”
A life in the water
On the back of every Mountain View swimmer’s team hoodie is his nickname. Phillips’ reads: Shark Bait.
That would be a pretty mean name to call a kid after he survived such a tragic shark attack — if the story were true.
Phillips will tell you, just like he has told most people around his school, that as a child he was swimming off a cove in San Francisco when his father spotted something gray in the water. Suddenly, Phillips felt a grinding pain on his right side. All he remembers next is Dad punching the shark in the gills and the rescue helicopter landing on the beach. By the time he woke up, his leg had been amputated.
“Everybody, till this day, still believes it,” Phillips says with a devilish smile.
Phillips, whose big and engaging personality makes him a hit in the school musicals, made up that story because it was a lot cooler than explaining to inquiring teenagers what PFFD means.
Phillips was born with a rare defect called proximal femoral focal deficiency. Early in Linda Phillips’ pregnancy, she and her husband, Phil, learned that their second child would have an issue. His right leg was not developing along with his left, and so he would come out of the womb with one limb shorter than the other.
So Phil and Linda planned as well as any parents could. They studied medical books and labored over baby names to pick just the right one. Because the playground can be a cruel place, they wanted something that kids couldn’t rhyme into derogatory nicknames. They loved what “Richard” represented, and settled on its variation, Ryker. The name means “strong.”
But their boy would need more than just a tough and masculine name. He would require surgery after his first birthday — the first of eight major operations. Even more, he would need to learn how to overcome his limitations.
“‘It will be your challenge as parents,” Linda says, recalling the words of an orthopedic surgeon, “To not tell him he can’t.”
So when Phillips wanted to go hiking or snowboarding or rock climbing with his family, he did. When he wanted to play baseball and soccer like all his friends, he tried. But while participating in those sports, when Phillips tried running like the other kids, he couldn’t.
It was a tough realization for a 7-year-old who didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘no.’ Phillips had to give up soccer and baseball, but the “strong” one knew where he could still beat his buddies in friendly competitions. The water.
His father swam competitively as a youth, and served in the Navy as the ship’s swimmer. Also, in their backyard in California, the family had a pool.
Phillips recalls only fuzzy memories of his first time in the water, because he doesn’t remember a time ever being out of it.
Swimming has always been there for him.
“He’s swum his whole life,” Linda says. “He’s tried these other things, but he’s reverted to swimming probably because he feels the most free in the pool.”
Sticking to his strengths
When Phillips started at Mountain View as a freshman, his family had just made its second major move, relocating to Vancouver. His new school was the size of his old hometown of Okanogan in the northeast corner of the state, and Phillips had to get used to the stares and questions all over again.
“I started out shy in high school,” he says. “People tended to avoid me because of my leg.”
Phillips did not swim that first year, and sat out again as a sophomore. He had made friends in band and joined the casts of the school’s productions of “Hello, Dolly” and “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Although he had found a place to belong, he felt the call back to his first love.
“I saw some people doing swimming, and I kinda really missed that. Doing the competition and being in the water all the time,” Phillips says. “It was always there and (I thought): ‘I should probably go back to doing this.’ “
The swimming sabbatical showed in the first times Phillips recorded as a junior on Mountain View’s ‘B’ team — the school features three squads and he fit into the middle group. However, coaches noticed his desire and work ethic. He backed up the meaning of his first name and performed as one of the strongest swimmers in the pool.
“He’s a great kid, great attitude,” says Dave Shoup, head coach of Evergreen Public Schools’ four swim teams. “He’s a great asset to our team because as much as guys want to sit around and whine, ‘Aww, this is so hard!’ Ryker’s doing it and he’s not complaining.”
Phillips focused on the butterfly — the great equalizing event that requires upper body muscle more than a forceful leg kick. By the end of the season, he had outswam several opponents to place 11th at districts with a personal best time of 1 minute, eight seconds.
“That goes to show you just how competitive he is,” coach Gary Hafer says, “and how strong.”
The last challenge
A long practice is about to begin under the domed pool. They call it the bubble. The cold and warm air fogs up the pool like a cinematic dream sequence, but also leaves blue jeans wet because moisture covers every chair.
“Do you want a towel?” Phillips asks Hafer, noticing his coach’s wet chair.
One would assume that if anyone needed assistance around the pool, it would be Phillips. Instead, he offers his hand, and those who know him best describe him as a selfless friend.
“He’s the first guy to come to me and ask if I need help,” says Shoup, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and often needs a wheelchair. “I mean, he’s got one leg, and he’s coming to me: ‘Hey, can I help you with this? You want me to do that for you?’ He’s getting chairs for me, he’s opening the doors for me. I mean, that’s just – wow. Neat kid.”
Fast kid, too. On Tuesday, Phillips leads the lane during practice. He likes swimming first among the “Gare Bears,” the name of Hafer’s ‘B’ team. But he wants more than practice bragging rights.
Phillips strives for the “Gare Bear” program record for the butterfly and needs four seconds to meet the 1:04.9 mark. Four seconds can seem like four miles in swimming, but consider that Phillips shaved an impressive 14 seconds from his time last season, and another four doesn’t seem so tough.
“In the water, you can do anything,” he says, then drops his normally buoyant voice. “I’m always happy when I’m in the water.”