08 Jun

Aaron Putz is a young man who has found his passion in life and is excelling at it – determined to reach his potential

 story stephen smith pictures redman media

As I write this it’s World Autism Week. Unfortunately, there are stigmas involved – you mention the word “autism” and people envision certain things: Rain Man, Forrest Gump, someone with a problem with social interaction and people skills, but crazy maths skills.

Similarly, when you mention “swimming championships” you picture broad shoulders, sculpted abs, long limbs and healthy competition. Add one word to that phrase – disabled – and the image in your mind shifts, it’s skewed. And I’m not being holier than though here – I’m talking about the images I see too. Or should I say saw, because meeting Aaron Putz has changed my perception of both. Aaron might be autistic, but it does not define him and he is every part the broad-shouldered champion of the swimming pool.

We’re chatting at the Putz family home, and Aaron’s confidence is engaging and, quite frankly, enviable. It is the confidence of a man who has found his passion in life and is excelling at it. He has even won a Sports Personality of the Year award!

Once you get Aaron started talking about swimming, it’s hard to get him to stop. His face lights up and he chats animatedly. So far the highlight of his career was in Mexico in 2017, where he swam in the 2017 INAS (The International Federation for Athletes with Intellectual Impairments) Swimming Championships. He won seven medals, but one moment stood out for him.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was right next to him (Felipe Caltran Vila Real of Brazil); this was the guy I wanted to beat! The whole crowd was on their legs, cheering because it was stroke to stroke to the finish on the 200 Individual Medley. He beat me by just one split! That’s how close it was. And from the 200 IM I went straight into the 200m backstroke, and that’s where I won the gold medal.”

Aaron’s bedroom is a shrine to swimming and his accomplishments, medals dripping from every surface – there are literally hundreds of them, including the seven from Mexico.

Aaron also loved his trip to Mexico because it was the first time he had travelled internationally without his mother coming along for support, and as it would be for any young man, this was both liberating and a huge boost of confidence.

Swimming has given Aaron the opportunity to see many parts of the world, from Namibia to New Caledonia, New Zealand, Portugal, Australia, Ecuador and Mexico.

On his bedside table is a whiteboard with I can, and I will! written on it. It’s Aaron’s motto, one that is keeping him inspired and motivated towards his next big goal, the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Despite Aaron’s joy at leaving Debbie, his mom, behind for the Mexico trip, you can tell she is his biggest fan and the source of his confidence. She beams with pride as Aaron regales with tales from the pool and his successful career (even though he’s only 21), and she fills us in on the details about his training, their tightly knit family, and the challenges that Aaron and the family faced, and how they coped as a unit.

“At 12 Aaron couldn’t swim,” says Debbie. “But we thought he needed a sport outlet so we took him to Nick Gray at Kloof, where Aaron’s sister Tayla was swimming. Nick was very welcoming and said that as long as Aaron stuck to the squad rules he was welcome.

“Aaron took to the water, and at 13-and-a-half did his first big gala. I remember he had no idea how to do a start, and a boy his age took him down to the start and helped him. And he came third, in his very first race. Unfortunately, he was disqualified for doing some funny kick, but he still came third.

A year later Nick came to us and said, ‘Your son is going to swim for South Africa, for sure’.”

Since those prophetic words Aaron has trained with Graham Hill at Seagulls, John Nortje in the national set-up, and these days Aaron trains with Angela Marlton and Cheree Dufner at Aquazone. Angela has been instrumental in getting Aaron to the level he is now, but she says it’s been a pleasure. “Aaron is such a great guy,” she says. “He’s so focused, and I only have to tell him things once – he’s a competitor and very motivated. I can’t wait to see him reach the Paralympics in Tokyo, and the next one or even two. He’s so driven, and such a perfectionist, that he really has the potential to make it to three Paralympics.”

“Aaron’s little sister has been very strong for him, looking after him on the pool deck and elsewhere. I knew that if Tayla was going to be around, Aaron was going to be OK. But the roles have reversed, and Aaron actually taught her to drive, having passed his own license test. And he always goes to his elder sister, Lauren, for advice,” says Debbie.

Aaron’s story isn’t a story about a young man good at swimming “for an autistic kid”, or someone good at swimming despite being autistic. It definitely isn’t about a guy good at swimming “for someone with a disability”. Aaron’s story is one of triumph, where he has found the thing he is best at and is on track to reaching his potential. How many of us can say that? It’s also the achievement of the entire family because without loving and supporting sisters and parents, Aaron wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to find his place in the world.

Debbie has a final word for parents of disabled children, “A lot of people think that if you have a disabled child you need to hide them from the world. No! You must bring them out and find the little something in them that makes them shine.”

Aaron’s doesn’t know exactly what his future entails (although he has already set up his own business renting out jumping castles – 071 292 9474) but there’s no doubt that it won’t be far from a pool. There’s Master’s swimming to look forward to, and he would love to coach to share his experiences. But first things first – he’s going to Tokyo in 2020!

As with any athlete who dreams of performing internationally, Aaron has a need for sponsors. Presently he is sponsored by Mr Price Sport, Arena Swimwear and the High Performance Centre.

*Contact Debbie Putz on  083 225 3239 if you would like to help.

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