Swimming: Hemophilia not slowing Regis Jesuit swim star Warren

Junior defying odds to become a beacon for those with rare blood disorder to become and state champion and All-American swimmer

Regis Jesuit High School's Elijah Warren on Friday July 01, 2016 at Aurora Sentinel. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Regis Jesuit junior-to-be Elijah Warren has worked himself into an elite swimmer while dealing with severe hemophilia, a rare disorder which requires him to regularly inject himself with drugs to prevent bleeding from joints or muscles. People with hemophilia are strongly encouraged to avoid contact sports and so Warren turned to swimming, an ideal, low-impact sport in which he has worked himself to an elite level. (Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

Elijah Warren’s compact, muscular build makes him look much more like a football player than a swimmer.

But even if he wanted to play football, it would be a virtual impossibility for the Regis Jesuit High School junior-to-be, who was diagnosed with severe hemophilia when he was 9 months old.

People with the rare blood disorder don’t have a clotting factor that works with platelets to stop bleeding at the site of injuries, making contact sports such as football virtually out of the question. But that doesn’t mean the star prep swimmer doesn’t look like he can play on the gridiron.

“I was at a Greek festival a couple of weeks ago and I had a woman come up to me and asked if I played for the Denver Broncos,” Warren said with a grin.

It has been more than 15 years since Warren was diagnosed with hemophilia — which was identified after he got a large, odd-shaped bruise on his chest from a pair of overalls he was wearing — and it has literally changed his life.

It meant he had to miss out on the typical roughhousing with friends as a child and find something he could do without worry. He found just that in swimming.

“Swimming is something I could do for a long period of time and it’s not as risky as contact sports, so I went with that,” Warren said. “I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of fear, but there’s definitely some frustrations.

“It gave me a new perception of being aware of the things I’m doing. This is part of who I am.”

A top-notch athlete is also part of who Warren is, which is not the case for a large number of hemophilia patients, who shy away from physical activity for fear of bleeds, even though doctors recommend activity to keep muscles and joints strong and protected from bleeds.

Dr. Michael Wang, Clinical Director of the Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has treated Warren for seven or eight years and has developed a great sense of pride in the rare determination and success of the young man.

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Regis Jesuit’s Elijah Warren takes a breath during the 100 yard breaststroke event at a Continental League boys swimming dual meet between the Raiders and Ponderosa. Warren won the Class 5A state championship in the breaststroke and had the fifth-fastest time in the event in the country as he earned All-American status. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

Wang has worked with a very rare group of hemophilia patients — including one who is in the process of climbing the highest peaks on each continent and another who competed in the Olympic Trials as a cyclist — but he always uses Warren as an example of a successful athlete with hemophilia when talking with colleagues.

Becoming an elite athlete takes so much time and dedication to begin with, but on top of that, Warren has to stay committed to giving himself infusions of a clotting factor (a process known as prophylaxis) on an every-other-day basis and every day if he travels.

Wang said non-athletes often get frustrated and give up infusions at times when they get discouraged. The infusions are even more crucial for an athlete, as any significant bleed means a lengthy period of recovery and the end of a season.

“Elijah is very rare because it is very cumbersome to treat yourself all the time to be able to do what he does,” Wang said.

“It’s a very difficult hurdle to overcome and not everyone does. To compete at a high level, you have to be very committed to the sport and taking care of yourself.

“Like with other chronic illnesses, this is something Elijah has to think about all the time.”

Some people with hemophilia still choose to participate in contact sports, though suffering a head trauma that results in a bleed there is potentially fatal. Sports such as football, ice hockey and boxing are colored red on a World Federation of Hemophilia scale (which is like a stoplight), while swimming is among those with a green light.

Wang calls swimming the perfect activity for somebody with hemophilia, as there is no contact and it is not weight bearing. He steers a lot of his patients towards the pool.

But none of them have taken to it quite like Warren, who has poured himself into competitive swimming and is making a name for himself.

“It has made me want to make the most of it, so I give it my best effort,” Warren said.

That effort is clearly special, as was his performance at the Class 5A boys state swim meet in May at the Air Force Academy, where he swam a leg on Regis Jesuit’s state championship-winning 200 yard medley relay and then individually won the 100 yard breaststroke in a near Colorado state record time despite swimming at more than 7,200 feet.

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Regis Jesuit’s Elijah Warren, right, stands at the top of the medal podium after winning the 100 yard breaststroke at the Class 5A boys state swim meet in May. Swimming in the Air Force Academy pool at just over 7,000 feet, Warren came just short of the Colorado state meet record in the event. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

The National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association/Speedo awarded Warren with All-American status for two events and his breaststroke time — adjusted down because of the altitude — ranked fifth in the entire country and first among non-seniors. He landed multiple spots son the Aurora Sentinel’s All-Aurora Boys Swim Team.

In his lengthy coaching career, Nick Frasersmith — who coaches Warren at Regis Jesuit and with the Denver Swim Academy club team — hadn’t had a swimmer on his roster with hemophilia before.

Knowing that, Frasersmith is even more impressed with Warren’s accomplishments in the pool.

“I know Elijah’s had some struggles and I can’t even imagine how it is to know that you are limited with some things you can and can’t do,” Frasersmith said. “But he’s definitely taken it in stride and he’s taking advantage of his swimming ability.”

A family support system is crucial for anybody with hemophilia, especially those diagnosed at a young age. Parents must learn how to infuse their children, explain the disorder to their  children and plan around the restrictions that come with it.

“It can drive parents crazy depending on their personalities,” Wang said. “I have friends who bubble wrap their kids even though they don’t have hemophilia. It’s a tough process for a parent to let go and let their kid go out into the world and try to figure how to live with this.”

Heredity contributes to 70 percent of hemophilia and Warren’s mother, Jennifer, knows all about it as she said she lost an uncle to severe hemophilia when he was in his 40s. She named Elijah after that uncle.

She remembers vividly the day her son was diagnosed after they took him in to get the bruise looked at.

“At first, they did some tests and they said ‘we’ll have some results for you in a few weeks,'” Jennifer recalled. “But they called me back that day and said ‘you need to get him in immediately to get treated.’ It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.”

She is passionate about helping people with hemophilia live as normal a life as they can and she is regularly inspired by her son, the oldest of her four children.

“Elijah has been blessed and given a gift with swimming and how well he does,” his mom said. “I have always felt there was a bigger reason he was given the gift.”

Warren, who is very private about his hemophilia, is grateful for his family support and encouragement in the tough times.

“My family has been great, they are always trying to keep me positive and keep me in a better mood,” he said. “Sometimes I can get in an upset mood, but I can’t really do anything about it. It’s who I am.”

With still two years left in high school, Warren has a bright future and he’s already looking forward to the next level. He’s looking to swim at some large Division I schools, where he hopes to study medicine or physical therapy.

Note: A 5K Hemophilia Walk scheduled for Aug. 27 at Sloan’s Lake Park. To contribute to the fundraising goal of Warren’s team, the Hemo Justice League, visit hemophilia.org and find the page for the walk in Denver. The walk is scheduled for 9:30 a.m.

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or sports@aurorasentinel.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel

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