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January 21, 2004

A proven winner

From: Times Daily, AL - Jan 21, 2004

Swimmer excells despite hearing disability

By Cody Whitlock
Sports Writer

Things didn't look good for Heath Rager shortly after his birth. In fact, doctors didn't expect him to survive.

Rager was born with scar tissue on his vocal cords, and he was treated with gentomycin, an antibiotic that resulted in deafness. The infant was also stricken with ataxia – a balance-altering disease.

Eighteen years later, Rager is proving all of those doctors wrong.

This past year, Rager teamed with three swimmers to win the relay event at the 2003 State Games of America in Connecticut.

"He was very excited about his medal he won, because it was the first medal that really meant anything to him," said Leslie Rager, Heath's mother.

Winning isn't the most important value when it comes to Rager.

"At the state games, everybody knew who Heath was," Leslie Rager said.

"They really embraced him and at least tried to learn sign language. It's been a wonderful experience as far as establishing peers all over the United States. I just like the exposure that swimming gives him to meet people.

"When you live in a society that you feel is not compassionate anymore or respectful, it gives you faith back in the world. It was really nice to see that they really took him in," she said.

Rager, who also suffers from asthma, started swimming four years ago.

Leslie Rager said a scare with asthma prompted Rager to take up swimming.

"He's asthmatic, and his breathing was becoming really bad. We read several articles that swimming would be the best help," she said.

"The asthma has been flaring up for the last few years, so he really couldn't do a lot of other sports. Swimming was the primary sport we could do. He got interested in it, so he started racing and competing."

Rager has had to overcome several obstacles in order to do the thing he loves.

While most swimmers rely on a buzzer to signal the start of a race, Rager has to rely on a light, which often times causes a disqualification.

"When you have to rely on a light when everyone is relying on sound. He has to turn and basically be off balance while looking at the light to know when to go, and a lot of times that has made him disqualify because he dives in too soon," Leslie Rager said.

Communication with teammates and fellow students, however, is not a problem.

"He loves the computer, and he loves to e-mail his friends," Leslie Rager said. "That puts him on the same playing field with everyone else."

Added father Ken Rager, "Instant messaging has been a great asset, because that's his telephone."

Rager competes in butterfly and freestyle events, but his true passion lies in the relay event.

"He swims harder when he's part of a team than he does for himself," Leslie Rager said.

Although the relay is her son's favorite event, Leslie Rager said that her son "wants to win for himself one day."

But it appears he already has.

Cody Whitlock can be reached at 740-5727 or

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