Student Participates in Beijing Paralympics
Like many people in the United States, Mike Prout '09 (social thought and political economy) was glued to the television each time Michael Phelps swam en route to his record eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics in August. But unlike most viewers, Prout watched the pool, knowing that a few weeks later he too would be swimming in the Water Cube, the same venue that produced so many records at the Olympics.
Prout, who started his senior year this fall, qualified for six individual events and one relay in the Paralympic Games that ran from September 6–17 in Beijing. 4,000 athletes from about 150 countries competed in 20 sports; the U.S. was represented by 213 athletes. Although Prout didn't win any medals this time around (he'd won two in Athens four years ago), he and his teammates showed strong performances. On the final day of competition at the Water Cube on September 15, the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team had won 40 medals, including 16 gold, and for the first time was at the top of the medal standings.
Prout's strengths are actually in distance events. He's held the Paralympic world record in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races, but neither race was held in this year's Paralympics. In Beijing, he competed in the 50-, 100- and 400-freestyles; the 100-backstroke; the 100-butterfly; and the 200-individual medley—all of which included qualifying heats before the medal races—and swam in the men's 4x100 freestyle relay. The relay ended up with six teams finishing under four minutes. Prout's group finished in 3:59.97—a new American record by nine seconds—putting them in sixth place in the most competitive field ever.
Prout, 22, of West Springfield, was born with a right arm shorter than his left arm, a right hand with just three fingers and a right leg that is significantly shorter and weaker than his left leg. That resulted from Amniotic Band Syndrome that his mother Patricia Prout developed during her pregnancy. He's had about a dozen operations, including one to extend his right leg when he was 12 years old. Prout originally began swimming as part of his rehabilitation from surgery and fell in love with the sport. As he got older, Prout competed for the Aquabears club team in Suffield, Conn., and held his own against able-bodied competitors. He made a considerable splash at his first Paralympic competition, winning six gold medals at the 2002 National Disability Games in Seattle.
Athletes in the Paralympics compete in different divisions depending on the severity of their disability, with classifications from S1 to S13. The S1 class includes the most severely disabled, while S10 is the least disabled. Classes S11-13 are for athletes with visual impairments. Prout swims in the S9 category.
The Paralympics include many of the same sports as the Olympics. Athletes generally compete in the same city and in the same venues a few weeks after the completion of the Olympics. At the Athens Paralympics in 2004, Prout earned a gold medal in the 400m freestyle—an event in which he's held the world S9 Paralympic record—and a bronze in the 100m freestyle. After three fourth-place finishes at the 2006 IPC Swimming World Championships in Durban, South Africa, he won eight medals—including four gold, three silver and one bronze—at the Parapan American Games the following year in Rio de Janero. Last year he set the American record in the 200m freestyle at the CanAm Championships, Victoria, British Columbia. "It's been pretty rewarding," Prout said. "It's been nice to travel all over and compete on an even playing field and see how you compare."
At UMass Amherst , Prout approached swimming coach Russ Yarworth about competing for the Minutemen. While Prout's times weren't quite strong enough to make him competitive, he was good enough to train with the Minutemen and Yarworth gave him a spot on the roster. "He's not as fast as the kids he trains with, but he can train at their level," Yarworth says. "He can train closer to his maximum output than any other kid I've seen. A lot of it is just plain old determination. He struggles on the power sets and the pure speed sets, but if there are pure aerobic sets he can really do them," Yarworth adds. "His times have gotten better as most of the kids do. He's gotten the most his body can give him."
After graduation Prout plans to attend law school.
September 16, 2008