Rising above limitations: Roger Gradler


Sean Hoey

At 5:30 A.M., Soph. Roger Gradler gets out his car on a cold winter morning; he is the first one to arrive at the high school. He walks through the South parking lot and opens the doors leading into the pool. He enters the locker room and quickly gets ready for morning practice.

  By 5:45, Gradler and the rest of the swim team are already hard at work in the pool. Although his work ethic is on par with everyone else, Gradler deals with something that nobody else on the team does. He lives with Bilateral Hip Dysplasia. In a normal hip, the femur fits tightly into its ball and socket joint with the pelvis. In a person with hip dysplasia, the joint does not form normally. The ball of the femur fits very loosely into the socket or is even dislocated from the joint. Gradler has this in both of his hips, but he does not let that stop him from loving swimming.

  Gradler swims for the Boys Varsity swim and dive team and loves every minute of it. For Gradler, it has always been this way. The Gradler family moved to Holland ten years ago. Being so close to Lake Michigan, and having a pond in their backyard, the family knew that it was important to make sure that their son knew how to swim. “I personally can’t swim, and decided that when we moved here, Roger was going to learn how to swim,” Patricia Gradler said of her son. “He started out at the summer lessons at the Holland Aquatic Center, the two-week programs they have, and he loved it.”  

  Gradler had found something that he loved to do, and found something that he actually could do. “With his hip dysplasia, swimming is the only sport that he can do. He can’t have any impact on his hips,” Patricia said. By swimming, Gradler eliminates any impact that he could possibly have on his hips. He’s able to compete and not hurt himself in the process. Gradler feels very fortunate that the sport that he can participate in is one that he loves.

Gradler dives off the starting blocks at the conference meet this year.

  After doing the swimming lessons, Gradler found out about the age group swim program that the Aquatic Center puts on through MLA. The program lasted about twelve weeks at a time and matched swimmers up that were similar age and skill, leading to the best competition possible. Again, Gradler loved the longer program. He loved it so much that when he was ten Gradler decided that he wanted to do the summer program as well. During the MLA season, Gradler met coach Sam Soukup, the Boys, and Girls Varsity swim and dive coach at Holland High School. He was Gradler’s age group swim coach at the time and really helped him flourish. “He was the coach that took Roger from ‘eh I’m okay with swimming. I know I have to do it to keep in shape because of my hips,’ to really doing well,” Patricia said. That’s exactly what he did. In one summer, with the help of Coach Soukup, Gradler made the jump from a D class swimmer to an A class swimmer.

  After club swimming for a couple years, Gradler finally entered high school and was able to join the dynasty that is West Ottawa swimming. His experience has been exactly what he’s wanted. Even with his hip dysplasia, Gradler has earned his varsity letter, based on time, both of his first two years on the team. “We knew Roger was really close to his varsity letter cut, so when he finished at the wall, we all looked up to the scoreboard and saw that he got his cut. We were all excited for him and proud of him,” Sr. Captain Joe Sigler said. He hopes that he can earn his letter again during his junior and senior season.

Gradler having some fun with teammate Jr. Aaron Doman

  Another part of swimming is the comradery of the team. Gradler thoroughly enjoys his teammates and spending time with them. His teammates and coaches don’t treat him any differently because of his disability. “More than anything, he’s one of the guys. He’s a team member just like everyone else,” Coach Steve Bowyer said. He doesn’t receive any special treatment because of his hip dysplasia. He does all the same workouts as the rest of the team,  which means more time with the guys. Whether it’s a long Saturday meet or just at practice, Gradler loves every moment he gets to spend time with his coaches and teammates.

  With the hip dysplasia, swimming does not come easily for Gradler. “With a sport like swimming, Roger is still able to do everything,” Bowyer said. Gradler’s coaches recognize that in order for him to be competitive, he has had to work extremely hard. “With your strongest muscles in your body being in your legs, that does put him at a disadvantage. But the cool thing about it is that he definitely overcomes that with determination and his outstanding work ethic,” Bowyer said. Gradler is almost always the first one to the pool, and usually the last to leave. He has to work what seems like twice as hard as the other swimmers. Most swimmers swim 60% with their legs; Roger has to swim 75% with his arms and upper body. With that being said, Gradler never complains and doesn’t use the disability to his advantage; he just goes out there and does the work to the best of his abilities.

  For most on the team, this was their first or second season swimming with Gradler, but there are a few that have grown up swimming with him. The Pardue brothers, Sr. Riley and Frosh. Tyler, have gone all the way through age group and USA swimming with Gradler. “When Roger and I were in USA together, it was always a competition between us to see who could swim faster,” Tyler said. The competition between these friends did not stop in youth swimming, “Even  now he is still faster than me, even though I try as hard as I can.” Tyler can attest that the work ethic that Roger continues for WO did not start in high school, “Since he couldn’t kick very well, he always pushed as hard as he could, [he’s] probably the hardest worker on the team.”

  Gradler spends a lot of time in the pool. But when he’s not swimming Gradler keeps himself busy by golfing, playing video games, and his favorite activity. “Sleeping is fun; I love it.” He lives with his mom, dad, sister Frosh. Jessie, and this year the Gradler’s are hosting a Brazilian exchange student, Gabe Bijotti.

  Roger Gradler is a shining light for the swim team. He is an inspiration for his teammates. The ones who get to swim with him for the next couple years can’t wait. The ones who are graduating will miss swimming with him. And the ones coming into high school are in for a real treat.