Unlike many triathletes, 13-year-old Jack O’Neil loves the swim. It’s the first sport he got back into after he and his family decided that amputating his left leg was their best option for living a normal life.
“The water was my happy place,” said Jack. “I couldn’t wait to get back in.”
Born with one leg shorter than the other and a club foot, Jack went through surgery after surgery as a young boy to help his leg, back and hip. When he was nine, he faced a tough decision. He could go through one of the worst surgeries again, or he could amputate his left leg above the knee.
“It was just so bad, I decided to amputate,” said Jack. And he’s never looked back.
Just over a month later, Jack got back into swimming, his favorite sport prior to his amputation. “It was a big part of me,” he said. The swimming helped accelerate his therapy and he was back up and moving better than ever in just a few short months.
Less than a year post-surgery, Jack met Melissa Stockwell at a triathlon camp. He’d never tried triathlon, but when someone who has risen to the top of their sport and has a similar injury is standing in front of you, you don’t say no to attempting a new sport.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “I don’t know how many opportunities people have to try out a sport with a Paralympian.”
From that first camp, Jack was hooked. He liked the difficulty of combining three sports into one race, and the fact that he was a pretty good swimmer was an added bonus.
“I just love to swim, but also getting to bike is great,” he said. “I like the physical aspect of it, but I like that one difficulty can make or break your race. It’s not just skill, it’s kind of chance too.”
In the past three years Jack has competed in more than 15 triathlons, an accomplishment for any athlete, but especially one who doesn’t have his driver’s license and is still competing in other sports.
“I love to play outside 24-7,” he said. “I still play football, basketball and hockey is my favorite!”
A typical teenager, he plays each of these sports competitively and with his friends so that he can test his skills.
“I like competing where you can try to do something that you couldn’t do before,” he said.
His competitive skills earned him a slot on the 2015 Disabled Sports USA E-Team, a program aimed at encouraging young competitive athletes who are training for future Paralympic endeavors. The E-Team has helped more than 80 young athletes through scholarships and training camps.
The young triathlete is happy with his successes on course, but he’s just taking the sport one day at a time. He considers his greatest accomplishment his ability to have fun and get others involved in the sport just by seeing him compete.
“I really like getting people involved and getting to train people on how I can compete,” he said.
Jack enjoys educating people on paratriathlon, and hopes to one day inspire other athletes to try out a new sport in the same way that Melissa inspired him to start competing in triathlon.
“Go out and have fun on your first time out,” he said. “Don’t think too much about it. You could end up loving it, but if you don’t, oh well. There are a lot of sports to try!”