As if there were any questions about James Cleveland’s willingness to swim competitively, they were answered recently when he suddenly headed upstairs to his room and returned with a fistful of ribbons.
A reporter’s visit to the Cleveland home on Read Mountain found James at the kitchen table with his dad and his younger brother, Wyatt, as a handyman tended to some matters behind them.
Life seemed perfectly normal, or is it?
James, 14, was born with a genetic condition called Sotos syndrome that is marked by a high forehead and other elongated features.
On top of that, he also has Celiac disease, an immune disorder that, among other things, prevents him from eating an assortment of foods.
Good thing his parents are both pharmacists.
The odds of a newborn having Sotos Syndrome are estimated at 1-in-1,400 or more and at 1-in-4,700 for Celiac.
“He was dealt a bad hand,” said James’ father, Rich, who provided those statistics.
And making the best of it. This weekend he was scheduled to compete in four events at the Roanoke Valley Aquatic Association championships in Christiansburg.
He’s certain to remember his experience Friday at the Roanoke Valley Aquatic Association City/County championship meet in Christiansburg, where, in his first swim of the day, he won his heat in the 13-14 boys 50-yard backstroke.
“I looked at the scoreboard, so I knew I won,” he said, “but I was like, ‘Come on, be real, that can’t be happening.’ “
The Clevelands didn’t start out as a swimming family.
“James was the first one,” Rich Cleveland said. “Since James was swimming, then the other two had to swim so we could be in place at one time.”
Older daughter Emma, 16, no longer swims. However, 11-year-old Wyatt competes for the Read Mountain team and, while sitting in on his brother’s interview, proclaimed that dad Rich would be joining the squad at some point.
“I don’t remember the exact day or the exact year that I started,” James said. “Fifth grade? Maybe even before then because we had to go and do swim lessons. I didn’t like it but I sort of got used to it over the years.
“In sixth grade, I took a year off to play basketball. I didn’t really enjoy that, so mostly now I swim. I like it now because I’m placing in all my events.”
James practiced with the Roanoke Catholic team last year as an eighth grader and will start participating in meets when he begins high school this coming school year.
His favorite event? That’s easy.
“The backstroke,” he said. “That’s because you can breathe the whole time.”
He has been nominated for the Tyler Nordgren Trophy, annually given in memory of another Read Mountain swimmer who was stricken at a meet Roanoke Valley Aquatic Association meet in 2001 and passed away overnight.
Related to his other physical issues, James has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and a similar back condition called kyphosis.
“Through his scoliosis diagnosis, they told him to keep swimming,” said Susan Bleecker, who is the coach at Read Mountain, as well as Roanoke Catholic.
“They noticed that it improved his curvature when he went back [for medical check-ups]. He’s also done karate with my husband, Doug, and he’s done a variety of things to keep his body moving.”
James was the first person to inquire about a junior coaching position at Read Mountain this year.
“I just find that with children, or even adults who struggle with something, they’re the best people to teach somebody else who’s struggling with something. They get it.
“It’s always hard for him but neither he nor his family ask for any accommodations. He doesn’t ever walk away bummed and feeling that he’s less than anyone else. He could have given up a long time ago. He’s not planning on giving up.”
It’s not a subject that just anyone would want to tell, but the Clevelands did not hesitate to share their story.
“James has taught and continues to teach us so much about life every day,” his mom Jennifer Cleveland said. “It may take him longer than most, but he continually tries and keeps an upbeat personality.”