Making the Most of An Opportunity

Making the Most of An Opportunity

Cerebral palsy didn't stop sophomore from landing a spot on varsity swim team

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

For Brian McLaughlin Jr. '04, the morning begins much the same way it does for other members of the Boston College men's varsity swim team.

Brian McLaughlin Jr. '04, in pool, confers with his fellow varsity swim team members Jay Stephens '02 (left) and Matt Baker '03 (right). "I wouldn't be here without them cheering me on," says McLaughlin of his teammates. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
He rises early, makes his way to the Flynn Recreation Complex and endures one of Head Coach Tom Groden's grueling morning practices, which consist of endurance and sprint swimming and weight lifting.

But the daily grind of the student-athlete is significantly different for McLaughlin than it is for the other swimmers. Born with cerebral palsy that deprived him of the use of his legs, he relies on a wheelchair to get from place to place.

"I don't make it any easier for him," said Groden. "He swims in the 7:30 a.m. practice because there are fewer people in the pool at that time. But he works just as long and just as hard as any of his teammates. "

Despite the disability, McLaughlin went to every meet last year and earned a varsity letter. He serves as an inspiration to his teammates, coaches and many others in the Boston College community, and beyond it as well.

"He's a diamond in the rough, one of the greatest kids I've known at BC," said University Counseling Services Staff Psychologist Jack Hennessy, who first met McLaughlin before he enrolled at Boston College.

While McLaughlin swims slower than his teammates and needs help getting in and out of the pool, he is no less a team member.

"I am on the team because of my teammates and coach Groden," said McLaughlin, who also praises the efforts of Assistant Coach Ann Murray. "I wouldn't be here without them cheering me on."

McLaughlin, who competes in the 200-meter race, grew up in North Easton and started swimming for exercise at a young age. As he grew older he also started lifting weights, and this helped him develop the strong upper body he uses to power his way through the water.

After captaining the Oliver Ames High School swim team as a senior, he was determined to swim in college.

"I knew that if they would give me a chance to swim [at Boston College], I could convince them," said McLaughlin.

Groden admits he felt some reluctance about McLaughlin coming out for the team but has never regretted giving him the chance

"Brian never misses a day, and works as hard as anyone on the team," said Groden. "Whenever you have a teammate like him, it offers a challenge to the team as a whole to rise to his level."

But McLaughlin draws praise for his character as well as his athletic exploits. Hennessy recalled how, earlier this year, a blind student new to Boston College needed help finding one of the automatic teller machines on campus. McLaughlin, sitting nearby, heard the student needed assistance and volunteered to show him the way.

"Brian was right there and willing to help out," said Hennessy. "Here we have a kid in a wheelchair going out of his way to lead a blind student around.

"It was remarkable. He'll do anything for anyone."

For McLaughlin, "the chair" - as he refers to it - and cerebral palsy are not obstacles, but rather instruments he can use to teach others. When he's not studying or swimming McLaughlin spends some of his free time travelling to local schools and talking to students about his life.

"If I can get one kid to look past the chair, then I've done my job," said McLaughlin, "I believe it's my purpose on earth to do that. It's my duty to help make the public aware of those with disabilities."

McLaughlin's leadership abilities and other positive qualities earned him recognition by the Boston Celtics' "Heroes Among Us" program. He was introduced to a cheering Fleet Center crowd during the half-time of a Celtics' game in December.

"It was a blast," said McLaughlin, an avid sports fan, who met National Basketball Association players John Stockton and Antoine Walker that night.

Last spring, McLaughlin received the Exceptional Young Leader of the Year Award from the Franciscan Children's Hospital in Brighton.

McLaughlin, an aspiring attorney, is a history major in the College of Arts and Sciences and looks to the examples set by former presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt for inspiration.

"In starting the Peace Corps, Kennedy had a vision that involved getting young people involved in service," said McLaughlin. "Roosevelt got the country through World War II, one of the greatest calamities in history. He was in a wheelchair like me, and it was a non-issue.

"And that's the way it should be."


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