In Beaufort County, one teenager is going for the gold.
16-year-old Jonathan Willis is competing in the Special Olympics World Games next month.
He found out he was selected for Team USA just last week.
Everyone who earned a gold medal at the state games put their names in a hat, and of those names, four were drawn to join Team USA for the world games.
“I am a beast swimming machine,” Jonathan said. “I am going to bring home that gold! Special Olympics is important because it gives people with disabilities and chance to compete at higher levels like the Olympians.”
Jonathan is differently abled, something his mother Brenda noticed early on.
“At the hospital, he weighed two pounds, nine ounces,” Brenda said. “For a while, we thought we were going to lose him. He is a miracle, a walking miracle.”
As a child, Jonathan actually feared water.
“He has had a thing with water since he was a baby,” Brenda said. “He didn’t want anything to do with a bath.”
Brenda said she encouraged Jonathan to conquer that fear several years ago in the hopes that the pool would help him deal with the sensory overload that comes with his autism.
“Look at him today,” Brenda said. “He has grown so much as a person. It gave him more self-esteem and more confidence of himself when he sets out to do something.”
His inspiration? Michael Phelps, of course.
“I admire his swimming and that he is a sponsor of Special Olympics USA,” Jonathan said. “I find him as a role model.”
Phelps and Jonathan both do freestyle and backstroke, things Jonathan practices every week with his coach.
“He has really come a long way,” Coach Eric Sedlacek said. “When we started four years ago, he would barely go in the deep end and now we have gotten him doing 25s. Jonathan is now going to the World’s, and I never thought I would get to see that.”
“You kind of lose words for how good it feels for your son to be successful at something,” Brenda said.
Jonathan said he is proud of himself for setting an example for others like him.
“I am inspired by what I do, because I know one day, one child with special needs is going to be inspired by what I have done. You can conquer anything if you put your mind to it,” Jonathan said.
The next thing Jonathan hopes to conquer is getting the chance to meet Michael Phelps himself.
As for the World Games, his family is tyring to raise money for him to fly out of the country for the first time.
Click here to contribute to their fundraiser.
The Special Olympics World Games is March 14-21 and will air on ESPN.
According to the Special Olympics, more than 7,000 athletes from 177 countries will compete in 24 summer sports, making this the largest international sporting and humanitarian event of the year.