When talking about his pre-race routine, San Dieguito Academy sophomore Noah Jaffe sounds like your average high school swimmer. As his event nears, he steers away from interaction on the pool deck, plugs into his headphones and listens to music, clearing his mind of distractions and getting into his racing mentality.
“I always try to keep my mind blank, that’s what works best for me,” says Jaffe. “You’ve worked hard at practice and at the meets, you just go out and do it—it’s muscle memory.”
That last phrase is a bit ironic since Jaffe suffers from cerebral palsy, a condition whose symptoms are manifested in an estimated 500,000 Americans. It’s a group of disorders that can affect a person’s muscle strength and control as well as the ability to move, maintain balance and posture.
For the 15-year-old Jaffe, it’s something that’s just part of life and in his case that life is about as typical as it can get for an achievement-oriented Southern California teenager. He’s an honor student at San Dieguito who’s a standout in his favorite sport.
Jaffe started swimming competitively at North Coast Aquatics (NCA) nearly seven years ago, viewing it as a natural progression from his enjoyment of the activity’s recreational aspects. Since that time, his swimming has become much more than a diversion.
“I wanted to do it for fun and it’s turned into a big passion of mine,” says Jaffe, who recently won the CIF San Diego para-championship in both the 50 and 100 freestyle. “Swimming is a big part of my life and I like both the individual and team aspect it provides. I’m not sure what I would do if I stopped.
“It’s a great outlet for the stress that high school brings and it motivates me to do well, not only in the sport but other things.”
This year, when San Dieguito chose to add swimming as the newest team in its varsity lineup, it was a decision that allowed Jaffe to derive another positive benefit from his sport of choice.
“When I found out about the swim program, I was pretty excited,” said the 5-9, 140-pound Carlsbad resident. “All of my NCA teammates do high school swimming and it was fun to be able to represent my school.”
Before encountering Jaffe, new SDA head coach David Bennett had never had the opportunity to work with a para-swimmer. Initially, he wasn’t even aware of Jaffe’s circumstance.
“When the season started and he showed up at practice, I didn’t know there was anything different about him,” recalled Bennett. “All I knew was that he was one of my strongest swimmers.
“Then, his mom reached out to me and told me he was a certified para-swimmer, would be participating in a large international para-meet at Indianapolis in April and wanted to make sure it could be coordinated with our schedule.”
Although Jaffe definitely leans to the quiet side, Bennett says his teammates like him, were impressed when he went to the World Para Swimming World Series event in Indianapolis (one of eight worldwide stops on the tour) and were definitely inspired by his performance at the CIF Championships.
SDA freshman teammate Katherine Huang, who also trains with Jaffe as a member of the NCA club team, thinks he brings a lot to both environments. “Noah is quiet but he’s a good teammate to be around,” says Huang. “Watching him work so hard inspires me to work harder.”
Jaffe, who did stints in track & field and karate as a youngster before focusing on swimming, has seen his hard work pay off in an uncommon way at San Dieguito. He’s been more than just a para-swimming star for the Mustangs.
At the recent CIF meet he represented the school in the para events but was also part of the Mustang boys’ 4x100 freestyle relay quartet that finished 13th overall in Division II—the only para-swimmer to secure a spot in the main field. For Bennett, it was pretty clear cut.
“Everything about swimming comes down to what the clock says,” stated Bennett. “And the clock said Noah was one of our four fastest 100 yard freestylers which puts him on that relay team.” Jaffe was pleased to have his performance dictate the position on the squad.
“I had to fight a little bit to get on it, but it was really cool to be in that race,” said Jaffe, alluding to some pre-meet wrangling with CIF that ultimately allowed him to compete in both para and open categories. “Having earned the spot even with my challenges, I felt proud.”
He’s been conscious of his issues since his youth but it’s only just recently that he was actually diagnosed. “I’ve been aware of it but didn’t really have a name for it,” explained Jaffe, whose form of cerebral palsy causes general weakness, a lack of coordination in his legs and, swimming-wise, makes kicking more difficult. “Honestly, I didn’t really think anything of it.
“That knowledge answered some questions but didn’t affect how I go about anything.” As a rule, that’s about as much as you’ll hear from Jaffe about his cerebral palsy or his accomplishments for that matter.
“He doesn’t bring it up and he’s really humble,” said Huang. “As I said, I think it’s inspiring, the fact that there’s never any excuses, he just puts his mind to his training and has shown that no matter what, you can still do whatever you want if you have the passion and perseverance.”
Jaffe is pretty matter-of-fact about the intersection of his swimming and cerebral palsy. “Many people will label my condition as a ‘disability,’ but I don’t see it that way,” he said. “The word ‘disability’ implies that I am unable to do certain things but I know I can accomplish just as much as anyone if I set my mind on it—it just might require more work.”
And work is something Jaffe has no trouble handling. His normal workout lasts about two and a half hours and covers about 7,000 meters. It’s produced a best time of 54.00 in the 100 freestyle which resulted in a first place finish at the CIF State Meet in mid-May. At the same event, he snagged third in the 50 freestyle (25.02). He’s also recorded personal top marks of 1:57 (200 freestyle), 1:00 (100 butterfly) and 2:15 (200 butterfly). While knowing how much additional effort it will take, Jaffe has some Olympic-sized dreams for his future.
“My biggest goal is to make the U.S. Paralympic team for the 2024 Olympics in Paris,” shared Jaffe. Para swimming is governed by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) and a classification system positions athletes according to the type and extent of their disability, allowing swimmers to compete against others with similar levels of function.
“I’m at the lowest level of the national team program right now but as you make the cut (lower your times), you move up,” continued Jaffe. “I started doing more training over the last year and will need to keep working as hard, or harder, but I’m ready for that. Technique-wise, I’d like to improve my legs to make them a little better and also build my overall core strength.”
Jaffe’s zeal and concentration in the pool are matched by his work in the classroom. The owner of a 4.4 GPA while taking AP calculus, chemistry and world history classes along with several weighted math courses, he amazes Bennett.
“The kid is brilliant and his capabilities in the classroom are fantastic—he’s smarter than me, that’s for sure,” smiled Bennett. “What he does in the pool doesn’t just happen, he works really hard and the same applies to his schoolwork.” Even without a swimming team, Jaffe had SDA on his radar for years before he arrived as a freshman.
“I’ve wanted to go to San Dieguito since I was eight—with its good scholastic reputation, its closeness to my home and the fact that all of my friends were there, it seemed like the best fit for me,” said Jaffe. “Both of my parents like academics and it’s become another passion of mine.”
Like many of today’s student-athletes, Jaffe’s spare moments outside of school and swimming are limited. When time is available, he likes to read (science fiction is his preferred genre) and is quickly acquiring yet another passion—working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which supports programs to help others with backgrounds and challenges similar to his. Later this month, the schedule has him traveling to Los Angeles (UCLA) for the Angel City Games where he’ll be volunteering at the swimming clinic and competition.
“Hopefully, I’ll meet and interact with some kids there who will be interested in learning about my experiences,” said Jaffe. “Certain tasks that other people take for granted, from being able to touch their toes to being able to walk without pain after a long day are things that don’t come naturally to me.
“I have learned to overcome this and hope to inspire other people to do so as well—whether through swimming or another sport.”