Joey Jurries of Arbor Vitae, a sophomore at Lakeland Union High School, celebrates a gold medal win at the Down syndrome World Swimming Championships in Nova Scotia in July. The Down syndrome International Swimming Organization provides swimmers with Down syndrome the opportunity for world-class competition. Since 2002, the biannual championships have been held in England, South Africa, Ireland, Portugal, Taiwan, Italy, Mexico and Canada. The next championship will take place in Turkey in 2020. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Writer’s note: Respect Life Sunday was Oct. 7 and begins the 2018-2019 USCCB Respect Life Program with the theme: Every Life: Cherished – Chosen – Sent.

When Jack and Judy Jurries’ second son was born, they were not prepared for the news that he had Down syndrome. The Arbor Vitae couple’s Catholic faith has shaped their “God’s bigger plan” perspective, as summarized by Judy: “Joey is special, but no more special than the rest.”

She was inspired to write a prayerful poem on the occasion of his baptism. It speaks of each child being “a heavenly gift sent from above” and that “we are all a part of the plan and God places us best.” The last line of the poem reads: “And with the good times and bad times we all go through, always remember that God’s up there looking over you … For we are all a part of his plan.”

But it is the line just before that quote that would prove to be almost prophetic: “Let Joey be a reminder to us every single day, that God touches each of our lives in a very special way.”

“I’ve never treated Joey like he was ‘special,’” his mother admitted in an interview with the Catholic Herald. “Maybe it was a defense mechanism, or not wanting to focus so much on the disability that I forgot to raise a kid.”

She acknowledged the numerous “awesome” resources for families with a Downs member, but felt that the selective focus did not fit her parenting style. Her hope is that Joey and his brother Jonathan – not quite two years older – both reach their full potential.

So when the Jurries realized that Joey’s swimming abilities could propel him beyond safety and therapy, they were all in.

Joey started swim lessons as a safety precaution with the area’s numerous lakes; it proved to be also relaxing and therapeutic for him. After quickly advancing from the beginner’s group and wanting more pool time, he participated in Special Olympics swimming.

“I can’t keep him out of the water – people joke that he’s half fish,” his mother said.

He then joined a club swim team and then the Lakeland Union High School swim team as a freshman in 2017. Judy shared, “my every dream was that my kid would be accepted and have peers and a social situation to interact with.”

She explained that Joey has apraxia, which greatly limits his speech, and that many of his interactions with other people are through activity.

“The team was amazing. They completely embraced him,” she said, and added that the individual nature of swimming doesn’t hold any of the other team members back. Acceptance of Joey as a swimmer culminated in the team lifting Joey on their backs after winning the conference title.

Joey and his family were further lifted up through support they received for Joey’s participation in the Down syndrome World Swimming Championships in Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada.

It was in March 2018 that the Jurries realized their son had qualifying times to make the U.S. Down syndrome Swim Team. With participation being self-funded, and the couple running a seasonal landscape and garden center business, accepting a spot on the team was a “leap of faith.”

After overcoming multiple training and health challenges, Joey and his mom traveled with the U.S. team to Nova Scotia for the world-level meet July 20-26.

Other members of the team came from Florida, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan Texas and Surrey (Jamaica). Meeting the team of coaches, 12 other families and 12 “other Joeys,” Judy’s reaction was one of amazement.

In a speech given at a welcome home ceremony, she shared, “These swimmers with Down syndrome from all around the world – they’re ripped, they’re in shape, they behave, they know how to fight, they know how to congratulate, to win, to lose, to be gracious … I was in the happiest place on earth in Truro.”

Swimming in various sprint events, Joey unexpectedly medaled in three and broke a national record. He won bronze medals in the men’s 25-meter freestyle and 25-meter butterfly; and gold in the 25-meter backstroke – the first U.S. gold medal in 10 years.

On July 27, Joey and his mom were welcomed home at Lakeland Union High School in Minoqua with a police escort. He can be seen in a Facebook live feed standing out the sunroof and waving as more than 100 people cheered and multiple emergency vehicles rang their sirens and flashed their lights.

With American flag in hand and his three medals around his neck, Joey’s excitement was notable as the crowd chanted repeatedly, “USA! USA!”

Speaking to those present, Jack Jurries thanked his son’s coaches “for seeing his talent, pushing him to the next level.” Unable to attend the championships in person, he shared the excitement he felt watching Joey take the podium and the in-the-moment pleasure he exuded.

Judy spoke at length about the impact of the experience and her gratitude for the community’s support. “The T-bird nation community is really special. Joey did this with a lot of hard work … and selling lots and lots of lemonade.” She thanked all his coaches, training teammates and the family and friends who contributed in any way.

She shared the image of the small mustard seed growing into a large tree and how Joey’s story paralleled that, and the story of a small community who came together and produced a real champion.

Speaking with the Herald, Jurries conveyed the inspiration Joey has been for other local adults with disabilities. She said, “God gave him a gift, there’s no question about that, but they can all strive for whatever their gift might be – music, art, serving others, caring for children or the elderly … Everybody has a gift. You gotta discover it, you gotta own it and run with it.

“I don’t care who you are … Everybody has a challenge in their life, and that’s okay. You need to just say, this challenge was brought to me to make me a better person – it’s your job to discover why that would be… Yeah, it’s hard, but this is your journey, so don’t ruin it. Discover every little thing that you’re supposed to from it; I don’t care how difficult or horrible – take advantage of it.”

Jurries spoke from experience. When asked about the challenges she and her husband have faced, she responded, “You give it up – we always laugh.” She said they don’t know anything different and affirmed that every child presents their challenges and that they have grown together through parenting both sons.

“Joey has challenges – absolutely. Absolutely there have been hard times,” she paused and said, “But there are a lot of things I don’t have to worry about with him.”

She smiled and then joked that she really doesn’t worry about her other son either, “Jon’s a good kid – dang, he’s a solid person.” She shared her pride in how Jonathan has risen to the challenge of being the sibling of a child with special needs, and particularly the only sibling. “I want to advocate for siblings just as much because it’s almost harder for them. (People) want to know how Joey’s doing and look right past Jonathan. Everything’s always about Joey – it’s how the world works, the needs dictate – but intentional effort is needed by the parents.”

She said the brothers’ relationship can be tricky at times, “because Joey doesn’t like to share the attention and Jonathan has his own gifts and talents … And two boys going through puberty at the same time under the same roof – I don’t care what your situation is, it’s gonna be ugly.”

Jonathan is also very athletic and sees himself pursuing athletics in college and as a career. She wants them both to be known as brothers, as sons, as athletes, but especially “as a whole person” living out the virtues of kindness, honesty, integrity and grit. Acknowledging “Joey’s journey has been pretty impressive,” the mother can’t wait to see what God has in store for his brother.

But the spotlight will remain on Joey for a little longer, and Judy continues to be amazed by the providential unfolding of events.

At the end of the championship meet in Canada, Kim Olson, Judy’s sister and Lakeland Union High School student counselor, shared a Christian song that quickly became Joey’s anthem.

The lyrics of Josh Wilson’s “Dream Small” summarized the message of Joey’s journey for the sisters.

“Dream small. Don’t bother like you’ve gotta do it all; just let Jesus use you where you are, one day at a time. Live well, loving God and others as yourself. Find little ways where only you can help with His great love. A tiny rock can make a giant fall. Dream small.”

Olson saw that the singer-songwriter was running a Dream Small contest via his Facebook page. He invited people to share stories of others “dreaming small.” She contributed: “Joey’s success in with the Down syndrome Swimming Team USA was about dreaming small. What started as a safety measure for Joey Jurries turned into him representing the United States of America at the 8th Down syndrome World Swimming Championships in Truro, Nova Scotia from July 20-26, bringing back two bronze and one gold medal.”

On Oct. 5, Josh Wilson made the official announcement that Joey Jurries had been chosen as the contest’s grand prize winner. After sharing that Joey and his mom would be flying to Nashville to spend a day with him and visit his record label and studio – Joey plays the drums – he concluded:

“Joey, can’t wait to meet you in person and experience the joy you have for life! Thank you to you, your mom, aunt, and all of your community for dreaming both small and big.”

Both mother and aunt posted their thanks and excitement on their Facebook pages. Olson’s post summarized the big and small successes of Joey and his community; she challenged to live Wilson’s lyrics:

“There are many people who are simply doing their ‘small’ in ‘big’ ways. Joey’s success highlighted that for me in a very real and personal way.

“If you are reading this, my prayer is for you. It’s that you believe that what you do matters, today. Do what you do in your special way. Don’t bother like you have to do it all.”