Jeff Jardine: Turlock man swims for the disabled

05/28/2014 5:18 PM

05/29/2014 9:38 AM

There is some irony in the fact that a man who lost both feet to amputation when he was just 20 months old spends his days working in a shoe store.

Yet Harry Boucher will tell you it is a fit both professionally and physically. Unable to participate in most sports as a child, he found his niche in the swimming pool.

“As a kid, I needed something to protect (the ends of his legs) coming off of the blocks and on turns,” Boucher, 44, said. “So I wore really small tennis shoes.”

His parents’ shoe store in Turlock offered a great selection and, in essence, the joys of being able to compete with all of the other kids. Now that he’s a grown man – he works at Boucher’s Comfort Shoes with dad Ken and mom Ernestine – Boucher is using his experiences to create awareness he hopes will benefit others with disabilities. That includes his 10-year-old son, Max, who has cerebral palsy and spends most of this time in a wheelchair.

Sunday, Boucher will compete in the 2.5K Lake Del Valle Swim in Livermore. He’ll strap on the protective shoes and head into the water. And he’ll swim the entire course with Max in tow in a kayak. Whatever sponsorship money he can muster will go to the Society for Disabilities, which, a couple of years ago, upgraded its name from the Society for Handicapped Children and Adults.

Harry Boucher contracted meningitis at 18 months old. The condition caused blood clotting that initially threatened much more than his feet.

“Doctors thought they’d have to amputate my arms and legs,” he said. “But they tried a new medication and (the clots) dissipated,” he said. Instead, they amputated the feet. He received his first prosthetics during his freshman year of high school, but by that time he’d been swimming competitively for a few years.

Mom remembers once taking him to a meet in Fair Oaks. When he medaled, some competitors’ parents complained that Boucher somehow benefited from wearing the small sneakers when he beat their kids in the pool.

“They wanted to disqualify Harry because he was wearing tennis shoes,” mom said.

Really? In a sport where world records are set by swimmers wearing the most streamlined suits technology can produce and male competitors shave their heads to eliminate resistance as they speed through the water? If anything, he’d need to overcome not only his disability but also the extra drag the shoes cause. Apparently, these folks weren’t big on physics.

Ultimately, a high-ranking official from U.S. Swimming happened to be at the meet and settled the issue by ruling in Boucher’s favor. The official also wrote a letter permanently clarifying Harry’s eligibility – a letter Ernestine Boucher carried with her to all of her son’s future competitions.

“We never had to use it, though,” she said.

Harry went on to swim and play water polo at Turlock High, a member of the school’s 1987-88 Central California Conference championship team, and played water polo at MJC.

Several years ago, he began competing in open-water swims in lakes including Tahoe and Pinecrest. He expanded to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Cruz, San Francisco Bay and other large bodies of water that present unique challenges and, in some cases, scary things in the water.

“On a swim to Alcatraz, something bumped against me,” he said. “I have no idea what it was. It’s a great rush swimming out there.”

Now, Boucher’s swims are geared toward helping others through fundraising. With his son’s cerebral palsy, he’s noticed the lack of playground equipment for schoolchildren with disabilities.

“Ask most kids what their favorite part of school is and they’ll say ‘recess,’ ” Boucher said. “If you don’t have anything to do, it won’t be your favorite.”

By towing Max in the kayak, he hopes to create more interest and raise more money.

“I contacted a kayak company to find out which would be the best for this kind of thing,” Boucher said. “They actually donated it.”

Max, who will begin sixth grade at Somerset Middle School in August, sort of wondered why he needed to tag along.

“Why? Why?” the 10-year-old bellowed melodramatically. “Now, I’m excited.”

The first time, dad tethered the kayak to his lower legs. Now he uses a torso harness that gives him more freedom to kick while giving him stability and power in pulling Max and the boat through the water.

So far, they’ve raised a few thousand dollars, including about $1,000 in sponsorships for Sunday’s event. The Society for Disabilities wants to help bring to Modesto a Miracle League baseball field (for disabled children) and playground, the latter including adaptive swings for disabled children. Certain swimming events won’t allow the kayak, so Boucher swims them alone.

Every type of swim requires Boucher to protect his propellers.

“Most swims have beach or land finishes,” he said. ‘You have to run up on it.”

One race, in Mountain View, ends at the boat launch.

“It’s rough,” he said.

Indeed, the shoes come in handy. So does working in his parents’ shoe store.

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