In this episode of the #AskASwimProShow, we caught up with motivational speaker and swimmer Spencer West, who shared how he swims with a disability and his advice for people who want to dive into the sport.
Spencer West was always destined to forge his own path. As a gay man with a physical disability, he has never fit into society’s typical “boxes,” and he’s used that to his advantage, both in the pool and out.
Spencer was born with sacral agenesis, a condition that caused the muscles in his legs to not work properly. Spencer says doctors told his parents that they weren’t sure how their son’s life would pan out. Would he be able to sit up, or be a functioning member of society?
Spencer had 2 surgeries as a child to help improve his condition. The first surgery amputated his legs at the knee, to hopefully allow him to use prosthetic legs. After prosthetics didn’t work, Spencer’s legs were amputated just below his pelvis when he was 5 years old.
Spencer wasn’t a fan of prosthetic legs — he found that he preferred walking on his hands! And his parents were supportive, encouraging him to be as independent as possible and helping him overcome any barriers he faced. He ended up joining the cheerleading team for his high school!
Learning to Swim
Spencer says he has always loved swimming. Growing up, he has fond memories of visiting family members in Phoenix, Arizona and swimming in their backyard pools.
Until age 5 or 6, Spencer relied on large arm floaties to stay buoyant in the water. When he decided he wanted to learn to swim without floaties, his parents enrolled him in swimming lessons.
He found an incredible private swimming instructor and continued lessons throughout his adolescence to learn the strokes and improve his technique. In school, he was able to take swimming instead of gym class. While his classmates in gym class ran the mile, he got to swim it!
You may be wondering…how do you swim if you don’t have legs? Well, Spencer uses his arms instead! Without his legs to weigh him down, he’s much lighter in the water, and can do freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke well. Butterfly can be a challenge, since the legs drive a lot of the stroke’s power.
He does flip turns too, pushing off the wall with his hands!
Spencer hasn’t been able to engage in many sports due to his disability, and swimming has allowed him to get active and challenge himself while keeping himself healthy. Swim workouts have allowed him to get the results he wants in ways that running on his hands or using his wheelchair can’t replicate.
When it comes to building his swim workouts now, Spencer listens to his body and only goes as far as feels good that day. He walks on his arms a lot, which can cause his shoulders to get sore.
Related: Watch Our Interview with 23-time Paralympic Medalist Jessica Long!
He typically starts with a few laps of kicking on his back to warm up, followed by a mixture of freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke. He tries to do 15 to 20 laps. Ideally, he’d get a swim in almost every day!
To Spencer, swimming feels like being an astronaut. He’s in a zero gravity environment, floating with ease.
Advice for Swimmers
Spencer encourages anyone who is interested in swimming to go for it! Find a pool, take a few lessons — just get started! He encourages new swimmers to be gentle with themselves and adapt your training to your needs and your skill level. If you only want to put your feet in the water that first time, do it, and come back next time!
Making an Impact
When Spencer isn’t swimming, he’s working as a motivational speaker. After graduating from university, he felt called to do something more than the typical 9-to-5 life that many students are sold.
On a volunteer trip in East Africa, he discovered that he could use his disability to educate people about not only the disabled community, but also causes close to his heart. And thus, his career as a speaker was born!
Has been a speaker for 12 years, but in January 2021, his audience started growing rapidly on social media, thanks in part to a viral TikTok video he posted (the fact that his friend Demi Lovato reposted it on their channels helped too!).
Despite all the fun he has on his social channels, Spencer doesn’t take his role as a speaker lightly. As a disabled person, he doesn’t want to be seen as “inspiration porn.” Instead, he wants to make a connection with others, using his life experience and the lessons he has learned to help others — such as the importance of asking for help.
To maintain his authenticity, Spencer lives by 4 pillars:
- Heart: Seeking out human connection, talking about positive and negative experiences.
- Honesty: Being real and sharing his lived experience.
- Humor: Being able to laugh at yourself is a good thing!
- Awareness: Raising awareness about the barriers that exist for both gay and disabled people in our society.
As a social media personality, Spencer is aware that he has opened himself up to questions about his disability — sometimes thousands of them! But that’s where these 4 values come in. He’s able to address people’s curiosities on a large scale, with a sense of humor.
If you want to keep up with Spencer and learn from him, follow him on TikTok and Instagram, and subscribe to his YouTube channel.