J.T. Fetter had trouble swimming straight in his lanes when he started swimming at age 8, and even today--as a junior at Park View High School--he occasionally struggles.

But this is a typical problem for totally blind swimmers.

What isn't so typical about Fetter is that he is one of the Patriots swim team's best athletes, and one who has competed at a world-class level: He is on the National Elite Swim Team of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA).

"I've just been working at it for a while," said Fetter, who won two gold medals (400- and 200-meter freestyle) at the Southern Cross Multi-Disability Championships in Sydney Oct. 28-31. "A lot of it's just persevering. I don't know if it's talent, or just hard work."

Park View Coach Mark Pankau knows it's a lot of both.

"He's surprisingly easy to coach," Pankau said. "He's a quick study. He's picking things up very quickly."

Fetter is the No. 4 man on the Patriots boys relay teams this winter and competes in the 200 and 500 freestyle individual events. His specialty is the 500, in which he swam a time of 6 minutes 34 seconds earlier this season, 19 seconds from the state-qualifying time.

How does he do it?

Well, in order to know when to make turns, his parents, Bob and Debbie, or his coach poke Fetter with a tennis ball attached to a stick when he is nearing the wall.

"Most of us learn from vision," Pankau said, "and he's doing it without that."

It didn't happen overnight. But after a slow start almost a decade ago, he improved gradually over his first five years with the help of his parents and his youth swim coach, Judy Read--and competed in Madrid at the World Games for the Blind at age 13.

"I think at that point, I realized I could compete with people on a level playing field, and this could be a real big thing for me," said Fetter, who is training for a chance to compete in Sydney next year at the Paralympics, the world games for disabled athletes that immediately follow the Summer Olympic Games in Sydney.

Fetter said he enjoys the camaraderie of high school matches but admitted he prefers competing against other blind athletes because of that level playing field.

"[Swimmers who are not blind] can see the lane rope, or they can see the [pool medians]," Fetter said. "That's the main thing, is swimming straight. It's just something of an advantage that people have over me. That's fine, I have no problem with it.

"I'm also realistic. I have the potential to be a decent swimmer in these [high school] meets. But in the blind meets, it's possible I could be one of the top 10 swimmers in the world."

Top Stories in the Area

Taking the Plunge: Broad Run, Park View and Potomac Falls are now AA. All three struggled in AAA last season, mainly because the other schools tended to have diving teams, and since the Loudoun schools don't, the diving events would count against them. This year they won't be competing against many teams with divers.

More Fish Are Swimming in Schools: Fauquier, Liberty and Highland are starting programs this season. The three Loudoun teams have added more swimmers--including Park View, which went from 18 to 35--and the county has started funding the sport. But will the money translate into increased popularity?

Where the Boys Aren't: Girls seem to flock to this sport (Potomac Falls has 48, Broad Run has 40). But boys are harder to come by (Potomac Falls fields 19 and Broad Run 15). "In fact, having 19 [boys] is usually a lot," Potomac Falls Coach Donna Kelly said. "Swimming isn't that strong a sport for boys in high school."

Swimmers to Watch

Steffie LaBure, Broad Run, backstroke, freestyle: The junior went to the AAA state meet last year in the 200 freestyle, but her best event is the backstroke, where she hopes to qualify for the AA state meet this year.

Kyle Martin, Potomac Falls, butterfly, freestyle: The senior won all four events, two individual and two relays, in Potomac Falls's meet against Handley last weekend. Martin's strongest events are in the butterfly.

Katherine Vorrasi, Fauquier, freestyle: In the Falcons' preseason time trials, the junior swam the 50 freestyle in 24 seconds. Vorrasi will compete this season in the 50 and 100 freestyle, as well as the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

Area Teams at a Glance

Team: Broad Run

Coach: Regina Aboia

* A lot will depend on the Spartans' underclassmen. Two freshmen lead the freestyle events--Richard Matthews on the boys side and Katie Fitzgerald on the girls side. The leading senior is Ben Smith, who specializes in the individual medley and the butterfly.

Fauquier

Kathy Winkler

* The Falcons are starting a new program this season, and their top swimmers are all nonseniors, Winkler said. Junior Katherine Vorrasi, a freestyle specialist, should lead the girls, while sophomore Tommy Nutt, a versatile swimmer, should lead the boys.

Liberty

Carolyn Hansbrough

* Hansbrough is starting the program from scratch this season, so the weaknesses will be experience (roughly one-third of the Eagles never have been on a team before) and depth (the team has 31 members). Still, the Eagles should have strong relay teams.

Park View

Mark Pankau

* Junior Holly Ward, a transfer from Utah who captained her team as a freshman and is competing in freestyles and relays, is a reason for the Patriots to be excited. A reason not to be, according to Pankau? They have only three year-round swimmers.

Potomac Falls

Donna Kelly (girls), Jason Porter (boys)

* The Potomac Falls boys and girls teams were winless last season, and both finished eighth at the AAA Concorde District meet. But with the move down to AA, Kelly is confident the team will do much better. Already, 14 swimmers have made state-qualifying times.

CAPTION: As a signal when he should get ready to turn, J.T. Fetter's coach or parents use a tennis ball on a pole to poke him when he gets close to the wall. His specialty is the 500 freestyle.