Joey Peppersack ‘21 remembers his first-ever swim practice: The piercing cold of the outdoor pool in Hopewell, Virginia. Finishing last in his lane.
But for the 9-year-old who’d lost his right leg, there was something freeing in it, too. Back at home, wrapped under a blanket, Peppersack told himself what he so often did. “Next time, I’ll try to do better.”
The mantra would take him to para swimming events around the world as a teen. It would bring him to the University of Mary Washington, where he balanced six-day-a-week swim practices with a full course load. And on Oct. 26, it would lead to new American Paralympic record in the Goolrick Natatorium at UMW.
Peppersack made the record-breaking swim in the 100-yard individual medley with a time of 1:08:01 during a dual meet against Frostburg State University, beating the existing record by three seconds.
The son of a Marine Corps veteran and full-time mom, Peppersack had been born with a rare condition that affected the large bones in his lower legs called tibial hemimelia. He was 4 when doctors amputated his right leg.
“My parents were adamant on trying to figure out how I could adapt to something. They never let my disability be an excuse for anything,” he said.
Peppersack learned to walk with a prosthetic. In the water, though, he didn’t need it.
“I did my very best to get as good as I could,” he said.
He began competing in international competitions with the Para Swimming national team – “a wonderful experience,” he said, “because you can bond with athletes who have mobility impairments just like yourself.”
In 2017, a year after narrowly missing a spot on the Rio Paralympics team, Peppersack won two gold medals and a bronze in the Para World Series in Berlin. And he plunged into college life at UMW, which he’d decided on after just one recruiting visit to Fredericksburg with former swim coach Abby Brethauer, who trained former UMW assistant coach Dalton Herendeen in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Herendeen finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke.
“I never applied anywhere else,” Peppersack said. “I fell in love with the community. The people were super-friendly. The campus is beautiful. The way they embraced me – it was just kind of a feeling.”
He’s majoring in economics and minoring in urban studies – he wants to be a city manager someday – and spends his free time in the swimming pool, his long-term goal the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic team.
Under UMW first-year head swim coach Justin Anderson ’10, Peppersack says he feels himself getting even better. And it is no wonder.
This summer, Anderson served as coach for the U.S. Paralympic team in Australia. Prior to returning to his alma mater, he served as head coach at Frostburg, coaching several Paralympic swimmers to record-breaking results and Paralympic national qualifications.
Peppersack, Anderson said, established himself as a leader in and out of the pool. “He always gives 100 percent in practice and meets. He’s also almost always training on some of the fastest intervals on the team.”
Peppersack set his sights on his own record-breaking swim earlier this year. On Oct. 26, a Friday, he readied for it. His teammates rallied behind him, just as they always did. Their cheers – their support that enveloped him like the water he loved – fueled his adrenaline rush and propelled him forward.
UMW Assistant Athletic Director of Communications Clint Often contributed to this story.