Born with spina bifida, senior enjoys swimming on high school team in St. Paul

Swimming is a big part of Nate Leber’s life. The Cretin Derham Hall senior started swimming at seven, and today is a member of the school’s swim team and has been all through high school.
Nothing extremely exceptional, except that Nate does not have the use of his legs. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
“We tried using a walker when he was younger, but it was too much of an effort, so he uses a wheelchair,” said his mom, Lisa Datta, a Como resident.
She said Nate took swimming lessons at the Courage Center after he had seen his younger brother take water babies lessons. “After a couple years of lessons, Courage Center had taught him all they could. They asked if he would like to join a team they had,” Datta said. “They said it was a good way to meet people, so we went ahead. We tried different things at Courage Center: archery, martial arts, track and field but the swimming stuck.”
When Nate started middle school, he joined a swimming team there, and then joined the team at Cretin Derham, which includes freshmen through seniors.
Datta said Nate has competed competitively in national swimming meets through Courage Center, with meets being held in Madison, Wis.; Colorado and Atlanta, Ga. “He usually finishes first or second, which is exciting for him,” Datta said.
On the regular school swimming team, he used to come in last but more recently has placed ahead of some of the younger swimmers. “He is getting bigger, and he has done some weightlifting, so he can keep up with the kids a little better. It’s kind of exciting to watch.”
According to Datta, being in a wheelchair and having to propel himself has also helped Nate gain upper body strength.
Datta said that when Nate was a freshman, she thought in the back of her mind that the other team members might resent Nate’s being a slower swimmer, since some of the swimming involved relay races. “But I have never heard any negativity towards him,” she said.
She pointed out that the swim team has not only provided the physical exercise of the sport, but also a way to be part of something. “A couple of times we have not been able to get a handicapped bus for meets, and I told the coach I could drive Nate. But he said it was important that Nate be on the bus as a part of the team, so he has really pushed for that.”
Nate, who has been hanging out with his younger brother and a foreign student from Kazakhstan who has been living with the family, takes his participation in swimming pretty much for granted.
“I don’t really think about what I like best about swimming,” he said. “I just do it.”
He practices every day except Sunday, and it has become a routine for the household. Datta said there are breakfasts and pasta parties after the swimming sessions.
When he graduates, he is hoping to go on to college. “We’re looking at an online college right now,” Datta said. “He’s not sure what he wants to do, so he will get his electives out of the way.”
Datta said although Nate is usually the only wheelchair swimmer, they do see other boys with wheelchairs swimming. “This happens more than you think,” she said. “No one makes special accommodations.”
And Nate does not ask for any. He is a kid who likes to swim – period. “I think that if there was a message to Nate’s story,” Datta said, “it is to normalize seeing people who are disabled, and making room for them in society.” 
She said Nate will continue swimming with the Courage Center. “We are very fortunate to have something like that,” she added.


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