A swimming pool is where Griffin Barlow finds solace in a big world.
Swimming for Mountain View High School also brings joy and confidence to the junior born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism.
In the pool, Barlow focuses on the task ahead and not on a past filled with pain. Until age 11, he lived in a Chinese orphanage, and memories of being harassed and singled out by others remain vivid years later and a half a world away.
“Sometimes,” the 16-year-old said, “we tried to hide.” He said he wasn’t the only child with dwarfism at the large orphanage in Huazhou, Guangdong in southeast China. “Once we were done with school, we’d find secret paths to go home.”
What Barlow has found now is a place of belonging. At 4 feet tall, he beams with self-confidence after five years in the United States and three seasons competing on Mountain View’s boys swim team.
He’s proud to be small, and proud to be Griffin Barlow.
“You don’t hear that a lot,” he said. “I’ve got the confidence for my future, and not thinking about my past.”
Since China began international adoptions in 1992, it continues to be a top country for foreigners to adopt orphaned children. The majority of adoptions are of children designated with special medical or developmental needs; children qualify because of their age or degrees of medical conditions.
Barlow was 11 when he was adopted in 2016 by a Vancouver woman who had just adopted a girl from an orphanage in a different Chinese province.
A year before her son’s adoption, Jennifer Barlow was finalizing the adoption of her daughter, Zoraya, now 13, when a profile of a boy named Ji Hauqi kept resurfacing on waiting lists in China. A “great, engaging” smile is what first drew her in, and so, too, did his story of educational inequities because of being labeled a child with special needs, and at an orphanage that lacked resources.
“We knew when we saw him that he needs to have the same opportunities as these other kids,” Jennifer Barlow said. “We’ll already know how to have proper accommodations at home. It made sense to bring home another kid with this certain level of needs.”
Jennifer Barlow is a single mother of two children with achondroplasia, the most common form of skeletal dysplasia. It’s a genetic condition that impairs the growth of bones in the limbs and abnormal growth in the spine and skull.
Home modifications for her children include step stools, and lower showerheads, light switches, closet rods, shelves, and pantry items for easy reach. Driving extension pedals also await; her son is studying for his learner’s permit test.
Zero modifications exist on his high school swim team, which is how the teenager likes it.
Barlow’s swim workouts don’t differ from his high school teammates in the co-op team made up of Evergreen, Heritage, Mountain View and Union swimmers, and hard work comes through extra effort. For every stroke an average-height swimmer takes, Barlow does double the amount to keep pace. He’s a varsity swimmer who primarily competes in the sprint freestyle and butterfly races.
Swimming provides a relaxing atmosphere, Barlow said. He learned to swim as a life skill shortly after arriving in the United States, and has now swam competitively for three years. He had difficulties fitting in at other sports, such as soccer or basketball, with average-height peers.
Not so in swimming.
“We have our own lane,” he said, “and our own space.”
Longtime swim coach Doug Lumbard has coached swimming for more than four decades. Coaching an athlete with dwarfism has motivated Lumbard to get involved coaching Paralympic swimming and Adaptive Sports Northwest’s Portland Piranhas, a swim club for youth with physical disabilities that Barlow also is part of. Lumbard said he’s considering making Barlow a team captain for Mountain View next season because of his vocal leadership and exemplary ways around the pool.
Teammates take notice, too.
“He always inspires me to do more and to take the extra steps,” junior Sam Recimos said.
Recimos and Barlow also have academic classes together at Mountain View.
“He tries to get better at everything he does,” Recimos said. “Even in math class, he’s always asking questions, always testing coaches and making coaches and teachers proud. It’s who he is.”
Barlow also takes part in swimming competitions with Little People of America, a national nonprofit organization that supports people with dwarfism and their families. It’s through LPA and adaptive swim meets locally where he competes against other swimmers with dwarfism.
Jennifer Barlow is proud to see her son find an outlet where he can shine, and more importantly, reap the benefits of being part of a team striving for a common goal — high school or otherwise.
“It gives him a place where he feels comfortable and confident,” she said.
Next month, Barlow will compete at the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s high school swimming championships. The state meet has two adaptive races — 50-meter freestyle and 50-meter backstroke — for swimmers with a wide range of special needs. As a freshman in 2020, Barlow had two podium finishes, and is aiming for higher placings for next month. No state championships were held in 2021.
Barlow knows he’s come a long way in the pool. And it’s helped boost why he’s proud to be small, and proud to be Griffin Barlow.
“This is how God made me, and it’s who I am,” he said. “I can’t change it, but what people can change is their attitude. … Even though people don’t think I can achieve anything, I can show them I can, and I want them to learn all about how little people can do things. Not just me, for all people with disabilities.”