He wants no favors--no head starts, no excuses made, no special equipment, no sloppy tears.
In that way, Christopher Cassidy is like any other competitive swimmer. He also happens to be a 9-year-old with muscular dystrophy. The degenerative neuromuscular disease has stripped him of considerable muscle strength, makes him a 1,000-to-1 shot on even his best race day, and threatens to put him in a wheelchair eventually if a cure isn't found.
"Everybody's got something," he says matter-of-factly.
He is 4-foot-6 and 50 pounds, built like a thermometer. He's a skinny, freckled child sporting a huge smile and loaded with a funny, ironic take on his world.
Last spring, after years of having to avoid stairs at school because he couldn't make the ascent, he decided to broach the matter with classmates.
"You may know me as the boy who rides the elevator," he said, launching his campaign for student council reporter at his Annandale school. "But I'm Chris Cassidy and I'm running for school reporter."
He won the election.
His swim team at the Camelot Community Club threw a "Swim-A-Thon" in his honor last week. It was a part of club members' effort to raise awareness and money for research into his disease, a day that yielded $3,500 in donations and included many warm and generous spiels about Christopher as an inspiration.
Characteristically, Christopher kept his own talk about muscular dystrophy to a minimum, and swam. And swam. And talked about his Pokemon cards and swam again. In all, he swam more than he or anyone else had expected--300 meters, or 12 pool lengths.
"Try telling Chris he's getting tired and he just shows you he isn't," said his mother, Grace.
"People think I'm gonna get tired, but it's boring when you're out," Christopher said. "And I don't need anything that's, you know, special. I don't want that."
"Special" means different. Special is a dirty word to Christopher, a B-team backstroker for Camelot. He wants no bending of the rules. Sometimes he must be helped into the pool before a race, but that is where all assistance ends.
Five perfectly healthy, robust swimmers line up against him, and the starting beep sends them off.
His disease prevents full extension of his arms, so he compensates with his kick, which is "really pretty powerful," said one of his coaches, 19-year-old Lu Duong, who organized the Swim-A-Thon. "I'd like to get all my kids trying to kick that hard. Chris is so determined. And nobody on the team is more competitive. He's going out there to do great each time."
Carrying such high expectations, Christopher sometimes falls hard. The winner usually completes the 25-meter backstroke in about 30 seconds; Christopher generally takes about a minute.
Last month, he finished sixth and last in his first real race and, once out of the pool, began crying. His father, Chris, tried to console him by saying he shouldn't measure himself against others who don't have a disability.
Christopher shook his head. No, no. He wanted to do better against all the competition. Period.
Coach Duong said: "Buddy, you did great. You went out and did your best."
"You don't want last," Christopher said.
In three meets out of four, he has finished last.
Anticipating such results, his father had reservations about letting him swim competitively, afraid he might become distraught if he always finished last, and, worse, that he might be ridiculed by other children.
The boy told everyone he would be fine. And his mother was adamant that he be allowed to join the team, to have "a chance to do the things other boys do."
The odyssey has not been easy for Grace Cassidy, who knew before her son's birth that the possibility existed that he might one day be afflicted with the disease.
Her brother, Eddie, also has Duchenne's muscular dystrophy (DMD), a variation that strikes young boys, passed through a gene in their mothers. "It's horrible enough to grow up seeing a sibling have to deal with it," she said. "But when it's your own son. . ."
She falters for a moment, but only a moment. There is something freckly and steely about her, like her boy. "Many children with DMD are dead at 21 or 22," she said. "They gave my brother until 11. But he's here. He's in a wheelchair today, but he's here, and he's 31 and leads a great life. He goes on vacations. He goes to Notre Dame football games. He's a computer wizard--and I think all of it inspires Christopher, just thinking about what's possible.'
Still, her family banks on a cure coming. In the meantime, Christopher's father says swimming is the best therapy he could have. "His muscles and tendons would contract over time without it. And once the flexibility is lost, it can't be regained. He'd be in a wheelchair earlier than otherwise. A lot of kids we've seen are in chairs at 11, 12, 13. Chris is doing better than most kids just because of the swimming. So it's critical."
Seeing him on the pool deck, you wouldn't know he had muscular dystrophy unless someone told you. He walks around--a little stiffly but quite quickly--on his tiptoes like a ballet dancer, because the DMD makes his Achilles' tendons stiffen up.
He's hanging out with one of his best friends, Cons Moschopoulos. It was Cons, 10, who managed Christopher's winning school campaign and who sees him as the funny Pokemon wheeler-dealer who almost always gets what he wants.
How does he see himself, Christopher is asked. He has a quick answer: "Right now, a swimmer."
He will have a race the following week. He can't wait. He still cannot get over the 25-meter backstroke event that took place eight days earlier, when, with spectators going bonkers, he tied for fifth.
"I was incredibly happy. I never thought I'd get better than sixth place. It was like, 'I can do this! I'm getting better!' It was amazing--the feeling, I mean. There's nothing more fun than being in the pool. I'm free here."