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News / Sports / Prep Sports

Blind swimmers Charles Johnson, Eric Alaniz receive tons of support competing for Hudson’s Bay

Both learning and sharing experiences with teammates

By Micah Rice, Columbian Sports Editor
Published: December 22, 2023, 6:21pm
5 Photos
Don Johnson, left, prepares to tap his son Charles Johnson during the 200 yard individual medley race at Kelso High School on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. Charles Johnson is a student at the Washington State School for the Blind who swims competitively for Hudson&#039;s Bay High School.
Don Johnson, left, prepares to tap his son Charles Johnson during the 200 yard individual medley race at Kelso High School on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. Charles Johnson is a student at the Washington State School for the Blind who swims competitively for Hudson's Bay High School. (Micah Rice/The Columbian). Photo Gallery

Charles Johnson and Eric Alaniz aren’t afraid of a challenge.

As students at the Washington State School for the Blind, each day brings obstacles that sighted people don’t encounter.

So when they don their Hudson’s Bay High School swim caps and hop in the pool to compete, there’s nothing Johnson and Alaniz shy away from.

At a meet Wednesday in Kelso, Johnson swam in the 200-yard individual medley, the 100 freestyle and the 100 backstroke. At a previous event he swam the 500 freestyle, the longest race in high school swimming.

“I was glad I got the 500 done because I was able to work hard for the challenge,” Johnson said. “I was able to accomplish it even though it was very hard.”

Johnson and Alaniz competed at last season’s WIAA state meet in the adaptive category, which is for athletes with one of six paralympic conditions including visual impairment. Johnson placed second in the Class 2A 50 back and third in the 50 free. Alaniz was second in the 50 free and third in the 50 back.

During the high school season, the two juniors compete with everybody. The only noticeable difference is a “tapper” at each end of the lane Alaniz or Johnson is in.

Both swimmers have enough vision to follow the black tracking line at the bottom of each pool lane. When they come within a few feet of the end, the tapper touches them on the head with a stick capped by a tennis ball. That’s when they know to turn.

Johnson’s parents, Don and Tammy Johnson, were his tappers at the Kelso meet. They also play that role for Alaniz, whose family lives in the central Washington city of Sunnyside.

“Whenever I swim it makes me feel free, like I don’t have anything holding me back,” Alaniz said. “It’s just me, the water and the strokes.”

All in the same pool

Johnson and Alaniz are part of a high school co-op team that includes roughly 30 swimmers from Hudson’s Bay and Fort Vancouver.

The skill levels on the team span the spectrum — from boys in their first year of competitive swimming to Fort Vancouver senior Tarik Kurta, who placed second in the state last season in the 50 free.

No matter how fast, each swimmer receives plenty of vocal support during a race.

“He really feels supported by the team,” Tammy Johnson said of her son. “After he started doing swimming, we started seeing more confidence in him.”

The Johnsons moved to Vancouver from Bellingham before Charles entered the seventh grade at the School for the Blind.

Having a supportive team is especially important for Alaniz, who lives in the School for the Blind’s dormitory and missed the Kelso meet to be home for Winter Break.

“It’s like a family we have,” Alaniz said in a phone interview. “We all work together. It’s really fun and energetic because the team is cheering you on.”

Sports are nothing new for Johnson and Alaniz. Both have competed in goalball, a game for the visually impaired where participants try to throw a ball outfitted with bells into a goal. Alaniz has also tried adaptive track and field at the School for the Blind.

But swimming is their entry into the sports world of sighted people, and the benefits go both ways. Not only are Johnson and Alaniz learning to flourish in a community of students from standard high schools, they’re showing their teammates how much they all have in common.

“I’m working with sighted people and they’re learning my limitations,” Johnson said. “But I’m also helping them get past any prejudices they might have and work toward the right direction.”

The daily obstacles Alaniz and Johnson face might be unique. But whether in the pool or in the regular world, the attitude both use to conquer those challenges is no different than anyone who succeeds.

“I want them to see that we don’t give up,” Johnson said. “We keep going even when it’s challenging or hard. If we get the stroke count wrong or something like that, you’ve still completed the event. That’s all that matters.”

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