IT’S NOT A STROKE OF LUCK : Blind Swimmer John Morgan Has Worked Hard to Be Competitive Again

John Morgan, an ocean swimmer, says the beginning of a race is chaos, but he never realized how difficult it could be until he entered the Seal Beach 10-Mile Rough Water Swim last summer.

He dove into the surf and swam toward the Huntington Beach Pier where a paddler waited to guide him through the race. But, his paddler followed the wrong swimmer, and Morgan floundered alone as the others continued southward. The situation might have distressed any competitor, but it was particularly upsetting to Morgan because he’s blind. Morgan swam for 20 minutes before he heard voices.

“I was really scared because I didn’t know why my paddler lost me,” he said. “I thought it might have been foggy, because it was cold, and for a while I didn’t know whether anyone would find me.”

It was the first time Morgan had been abandoned, but he says he always struggles more than other swimmers because he needs his paddler. Still, it hasn’t stopped him from completing five Southern California rough water swims since 1983. Last year, he was third in the Seal Beach competition, and was chosen for the 1984 United States All America Team. He also holds six world records for blind swimmers.


Five years ago, he thought he would never swim again.

Morgan lost his vision in 1980, five years after his family moved from Huntington Beach to a small town in Argentina where his father grew up. Morgan competed earlier that year for the Argentine National Team in the South American Championships.

He lost his chance for further international competition when he suffered an eye injury during a freak accident while lifting weights. After a year of treatments, including four operations, Morgan could see the difference between black and white.

Morgan returned to the pool shortly after his family moved back to Huntington Beach in 1982. He entered a United States Assn. for Blind Athletes regional meet and won the 100-meter freestyle event and qualified for the national championships.


The experience was a giant boost to his confidence. Morgan decided to go out for his college team later that day when he met blind runner Harry Cordellos, who has completed more than 90 marathons. That week, Morgan enrolled in a nine-week class at Golden West College. By January, he had made the swim team.

This was Morgan’s first experience as a blind student, and he struggled almost as much finding classrooms as he did completing assignments. Eventually, he learned to read text books with the help of a visual machine that enlarges print onto an adjoining screen. That semester, Morgan survived only three weeks of workouts before quitting the team.

He returned to competition in 1984, and capped the season with a second-place finish in the 1,650 freestyle at the South Coast Conference championships and seventh-place finishes in the 1,650 and the 500 free at the state championships.

“His first year, John was trying to live in a world with sighted people, and he didn’t accept his blindness,” Coach Ken Hamdorf said. “He was terrified of losing what little vision he had, and he struggled on the team. After that first season, though, he came back and became a team leader. He’s got a tremendous amount of determination, and I have no doubt that he would be the same way if he could see.”


Morgan wanted instant swimming success and that in itself proved to be a hinderance.

“I wasn’t ready to be on the swim team that first year because it was just too important to me,” he said. “The swim team’s a very macho thing; you have to constantly compete, and you have to know how to handle the ups and downs. It took me a year to adjust to that, and the next season was still very hard for me. But, I got through it somehow.”

Hamdorf said he understood how desperately Morgan wanted to adjust.

“I really placed myself in John’s situation, and one of the things I knew was that I wouldn’t want anyone to take pity on me,” he said. “At times, this meant letting him walk into benches and things so he could learn where they were. But, if I had moved things around to make it easy for him, I would have hurt him in the long run. He wanted to learn, so I let him.”


What Morgan learned was that the only way to improve was to swim constantly, and he attended his three-hour workouts daily.

“Ken was very good for me, because he pushed me very hard,” Morgan said. “He never let me make excuses like ‘I’m a blind person. I can’t swim as well.’ He knew what I could do, and he was tough--very serious when it came to workouts. But, we had a lot of good times.”

Morgan has actually found that swimming improves his sight. He lost it almost completely during Christmas vacation last year when he stopped working out. But, he could see again in January, when he entered UC Irvine, and began coach Charlie Schober’s morning swim class.

“I don’t know why this happens,” Morgan said. " Maybe swimming helps my sight because I’m stronger when I swim, and this affects my whole body.”


When Morgan returned to UCI this fall, he became the Anteaters’ No. 3 long-distance man. He returned to rough water swimming Oct. 5th at the Cabrillo Beach Five Mile event. This time his paddler met him, and Morgan placed second, only 33 seconds behind the champion.

“I feel like it’s easier now,” he said. “When I first started swimming again, I think I had to prove something and that was my only motivation. I just had to show that I could come back. Now, I enjoy being in shape, and making friends on the team, and I really like the sport.”