Happy in his role as the Grafton girls swim coach, a medal-winning Paralympian looks back at the fraction of a second that changed his life
Tom Miazga took an entire year off to train for his second Paralympics.
He made the finals of his favorite event, the 100-meter backstroke, at the Beijing Paralmpics in 2008 and had hoped to medal in London in 2012.
Competition was fierce at the trials in Bismarck, N.D., but the Cedarburg native was a top swimmer. He holds American records and is a multiple-medal winner at international competitions.
As with any Olympic trials, every fraction of a second counts.
Miazga missed qualifying by 1/100th of a second. He was devastated.
“It changed my life entirely,” he said.
Miazga had taken the fall semester off from St. Louis University, figuring he’d be swimming in the Paralympics. In order to maintain his scholarship, he couldn’t return until spring.
Miazga said he lost motivation, but his mentor, Steve Keller, told him about a Grafton girls’ swim coach opening back home. Miazga didn’t get the head job but was hired as the assistant.
He transferred to Marquette University and changed his major from physical therapy to teaching.
Through coaching, Miazga fell in love with the sport again. He returned to competitive swimming and won a silver medal at the 2015 Parapan American Games.
Miazga dreamt of returning to Rio, this time as a Paralmpian.
During warm-ups at a national meet December in that same Bismarck pool of his last disappointment, Miazga saw something that caught his eye. A group of children from two area schools came to watch the swimmers.
“I remember thinking I instantly wanted to go talk to those kids about the Paralympics,” he said.
“I realized my job in this sport wasn’t to be the swimmer.”
He made the decision in the pool to retire from competitive swimming after that meet. He would not compete at the Paralympic trials in June.
“I got to leave that pool in December totally happy and excited,” he said.
After retirement, Miazga avoided the pool for six months but remained active. He completed his first triathlon in summer. Two days before the event, he thought, “I should probably get in the water.”
A triathlon wasn’t on the radar growing up with cerebral palsy. Everyday tasks that able-bodied people take for granted proved challenging at times.
Miazga tried not to let his disability affect him.
“It’s never been a huge hindrance,” he said.
He went to physical therapy each week, and his last surgery was in third grade. But playtime was difficult.
“Recess was always kind of an uncertain time for me,” he said.
Playing football or soccer with his classmates was too intense.
Second-grade teacher Steve Keller began shooting hoops with Miazga every day, taking every recess duty he could. Keller, the co-head coach of Ozaukee Aqautics, suggested his basketball buddy try swimming.
Miazga instantly noticed something.
“I always felt at home in the water because my disability was irrelevant,” he said.
Miazga swam for three years, but when he fell behind the blocks, other swimmers laughed at him, and he left the sport.
In middle school, Miazga played baseball, one of his biggest passions.
At Cedarburg High School, Miazga was helping set up for homecoming and he wheeled by the pool. Keller saw him. The two talked for 90 minutes, “and I was back on the swim team,” Miazga said.
Keller had seen the movie, “Remember the Titans,” that features a player injured in a car accident who competes in the Paralympics. He told Miazga about the possibility.
“He had been to every level of swimming competition he could except the Olympic Games,” Miazga said. Keller told him, “‘If I’m going to get somebody there, it’s you.’”
Miazga qualified for nationals and a year later was in Rio winning six medals at that Parapan Am Games.
He took his time in the 100 backstroke from 1 minute, 33 seconds in high school to 1 minute, 5 seconds going into college.
In the pool, Miazga learned to adjust. On some days, his legs some days would drag more than others. Keller taught him ways to control his body and find the right hip position and how to utilize his arms.
“It was trial and error and not being afraid to do things differently,” Miazga said. “That was a big thing.”
Swimming took Miazga to Rio, Beijing, Manchester, England and across the United States and Canada. He has won 13 international medals.
“It’s still hard to grasp the concept that I made it to that level, the highest level of the sport,” he said.
Now, Miazga, at age 25, has a new role in swimming. After coaching boys and girls at Shorewood last year while student teaching — he put in 18 hours a day — Miazga got that Grafton girls head coaching job this summer.
Miazga said he will teach having fun with swimming, something he lost after putting too much pressure on himself.
“I swam well at international meets because I was representing my country,” he said.
He will tell his Black Hawk swimmers, “‘You get to represent the entire population at Grafton High School. They look to you as the swimming source.”
Miazga has another job in Grafton as well. The personable 25-year-old graduated from Marquette with a teaching degree in January, and he starts teaching fourth grade at Grafton Elementary School next week.
“I’m excited, nervous, a little bit of everything,” he said
He’s also back coaching Ozaukee Aquatics with Keller, who’s thrilled that his star student is helping rejuvenate and reinvigorate children’s passion for swimming.
“He’s just got that drive and determination. He was one of those kids you had pegged early on that he was going to go far,” Keller said.
Even Keller didn’t see an international champion and American record holder in the works.
“I never imagined that at 8 years old he would become this,” he said.
Miazga said missing those London Olympics in Bismarck by the slightest of margins altered the course of his life.
“You never know. Everything can change in 1/100th of a second,” he said.
While Miazga decided to retire in that same Bismarck pool last December, he still had to swim in the meet. His final event was a 4x100 medley relay. He swam his favorite leg, the backstroke.
The anchor, an upcoming swimmer, set his personal best by three seconds. The team took gold. Miazga got his redemption.
“I left that exact same pool so disappointed and then so happy,” he said.
The winning margin was a fitting photo finish.
The team won by 1/100th of a second.
Image Information: Members of the Grafton High School girls swim team gathered with their new head coach, Tom Miazga, who overcame cerebral palsy to become an international swimming star. Photo by Sam Arendt