A Numbers Guy, Noah Jaffe Has His Eyes Set On Four Key Digits: 2-0-2-4
by Karen Price
Noah Jaffe (right) poses with Lawrence Sapp and Robert Griswold after winning medals at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo: Joey Kirkman)
Noah Jaffe has always been a numbers guy, so he knew the exact time he needed to hit in the 400-meter freestyle in order to meet the U.S. Para swimming national team standard.
After he touched the wall and saw his time at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis last summer, he knew instantly what he’d just accomplished. Still, he was a little surprised.
“It was more shocking because I thought I was a lot farther off than I was while I was in the race,” said Jaffe, who lowered his personal best by 10 seconds. “It was really cool.”
Jaffe, 18, is one of nine athletes on the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National “C” team and has dreams of competing in Paris when the Paralympic swim competition opens in 2024. Between now and then he’ll be keeping plenty busy between training and academics at Cal, where he’s a freshman biochemistry major.
Jaffe first started swimming competitively with his local Southern California club team in Carlsbad when he was just 8 years old. The older he got, the more passionate he became about the sport.
“I always really liked the individual competition factor of it, just that you’re against yourself and no one else,” he said. “It’s really rewarding for me to improve, and that’s why I swim. You get very noticeable improvements, and I enjoy that aspect of it.”
At age 13, Jaffe was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Interestingly, he was told that his swimming and athleticism likely helped to mask his symptoms to that point, but it was a swim coach who first saw something that raised a concern.
“For me, it’s just kind of how I’ve always been so I didn’t notice anything, but as I got older and started growing more, the differences I have with walking and muscle strength became more apparent,” he said. “Other people around me took notice more, and that’s what led to my diagnosis.”
For Jaffe, the condition impacts his lower body so that kicking can be a little more difficult and his start is different from that of most people, but he’s found what works for him. It also never stopped him from competing with and against able-bodied swimmers in club and in high school, where he was part of the 4x100-yard freestyle relay team.
He became involved in Para swimming at 14, shortly after his diagnosis.
“(My diagnosis) was definitely a hard thing to hear; no one wants to be different,” he said. “But Para swimming helped me to embrace my differences. It’s been pretty amazing just being around all those incredible athletes and definitely great to be a part of.”
In 2019, California added Para categories to its state swimming championships in both the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle events. He won the title in the 100-yard event and placed third in the 50.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “No one had ever heard of (Para swimming) before so it was cool to be able to go out there and if people had questions, I was always happy to answer them. It was cool to be a part of that early emergence of Para swimming.”
Unfortunately, Jaffe never got a chance to defend his title. The state canceled the championships his junior and senior years because of COVID-19.
Jaffe’s favorite event is the 400-meter freestyle; he enjoys the strategy that goes into the longer distance races. He’s currently swimming on the Cal club team, a relief after having the pools closed or limited for most of the fall semester because of the pandemic. He plans to race at the World Para Swimming World Series competition this week in Indianapolis with the hopes of then making this summer’s world championships team. From there he will work toward making the Paralympic team in 2024.
But he’s also focused on using his time in college to prepare not only for a career in STEM but also increasing disability diversity in STEM.
“It’s definitely something that needs to be given more attention,” he said. “It’s important that people with disabilities have a voice. Right now I’m thinking of going to medical school, and that’s kind of intimidating on its own. Add on having a physical disability as well and it’s something you have to think about. But I definitely think as a country we should work on having the resources so that people don’t feel scared to follow what they want to do.
“That’s what I hope to bring awareness to and work toward breaking down some of those barriers. That’s where I’m at right now; I have a lot of things going on and I’m just trying to see how to connect everything and move it forward.”