Even as a newborn, Michael Little had a noticeable affinity for being in and around water. As he’s the son of two accomplished swimmers, that came as no surprise to either parent.

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“As an infant, I’d pour water over the top of his head and he has always liked it,” said his mother, Monica, a former University of Washington swimmer whose husband, and Michael’s father, swam at the University of Utah after winning a pair of CIF swim championships.

Michael, now a senior at Santa Ynez Valley Union High, has followed in his parents’ footsteps, though he has had to overcome major obstacles along the way.

Michael was born nine weeks premature and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 10 months old. The disorder, which impairs muscle movement and coordination due to damage to the brain, requires that Michael often use a wheelchair or crutches to get around on land. In the pool, however, the longtime swimmer, who has been a member of the Pirates’ swim team for four years, is right at home.

Thanks in large part to his parents, who are still active swimmers, Michael learned to swim at 2 years old and began competing at age 8.

“This is huge in our family,” he said. “It’s just kind of what we do.”

Michael got an early start learning proper techniques for the various competitive strokes. When he was about 6 years old, his mother began giving private swim lessons to children in the Valley, classes that she still offers today.

“I’d be in the water a couple days a week (teaching the classes), so Michael was in the water bobbing up and down and learning all the strokes,” Monica said, noting that she taught several of Michael’s current teammates how to swim.

Due to his disability, however, Michael’s road has had its share of bumps. He underwent his first major surgery at 3 years old and has had about a dozen surgeries throughout his life. Still, he joined the Santa Ynez swim team as a freshman and hasn’t missed much, if any, time with the team since.

“It doesn’t seem to hold him back,” Pirates coach Jake Kalkowski said of Michael’s disability. “He’s out there pushing as hard as he can. He’s very dedicated. He’s out here every day – before practice – and he’s just always pushing hard. The work ethic that he has, I think, exceeds and surpasses a lot of other kids. He has a huge amount of heart.”

Michael competes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races, the 200-yard freestyle relay and sometimes the 100-yard breaststroke. His work ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“Michael has definitely done a good job all four years,” said fellow senior Lukas Lastra, one of the team’s captains this year. “He’s always here and he keeps improving on his times.”

For his part, Michael said he enjoys the time he gets to spend at the pool. He isn’t able to swim in cold water and his family’s home pool – which has a current to swim against – is no longer heated year-round, so he looks forward to the swim season each year.

“It gets my mind off school and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “If I wasn’t here, I don’t know what I would do. I would probably just sit on my butt or something.”

After a pause and a smile, he added: “Plus, it keeps me in shape and tanned and good-looking.”

Monica, who comes from a long line of athletes (her father, Norman Buvick, was a member of the 1948 U.S. Olympic rowing team and swam competitively until he was 77, and her grandfather ran track in college), said that she is thankful that her parents encouraged her to participate in athletics and stay fit. She said she tries to pass that along to her swim students, noting that “one of my goals is to encourage a positive addiction to exercise.” For Michael, she said the benefits are two-fold.

“It’s therapy for Michael,” she said. “When he’s in the water, he’s free. He doesn’t have the restrictions in the water that he has on land.”

It’s also beneficial physically.

“There aren’t many kids with cerebral palsy that exercise like he does,” Monica said. “For someone with CP, that’s the best thing they can do. You’ve got to keep moving. It’s basically brain damage and a secondary characteristic is joint deformity and the uneven pull of the muscles on the joints just creates havoc. So the best thing to do – and it’s true for all of us – is to just keep moving, even when you ache.”

Michael said he doesn’t plan to stop swimming competitively following his high school graduation this spring. He said he will likely attend Santa Barbara City College or Allan Hancock College next fall, and he intends to swim on a club team in Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo.

Over his four years at Santa Ynez, Kalkowski said that Michael has been an inspiration not only for his teammates, but for opposing swimmers as well.

“Kids from other schools have come up to me and said how great it was to see him out there,” he said. Noting the ovations that Michael has received during competitions, Monica said she has also seen first-hand the way her son has motivated and inspired his peers. For Michael, though, he said he doesn’t see himself that way.

“This is just what I like to do,” he said.

Upon hearing that, Monica said she isn’t surprised.

“He’s stubborn,” she said. “But that stubbornness is going to get him places.”

willis@syvjournal.com