The 40-pound jug shakes as sophomore Wilson Parnell strains to pull it from the water. Treading water alongside the rest of the Chapman water polo team, Parnell has to take his submerged five-gallon water jug from beneath the surface and pour it out above his head, a drill that challenges players’ stamina and upper body strength.
While the exercise pushes all of the players to exhaustion, it’s especially hard for Parnell, who only has one leg.
“There’s nobody that’s going to fight and work as hard as him, because of his disability and what he has to do,” said head coach Eric Ploessell. “He really amazes me sometimes in practice.”
For Parnell, who transferred to Chapman this year from Loyola Marymount University, this type of reaction is something he’s been getting his entire life. Born with fibular hemimelia, a condition in which a person is born with no fibula, Parnell’s leg was amputated when he was 16 months old to ensure he would eventually be able to walk.
Growing up with a prosthetic leg, Parnell said that he couldn’t remember a time without his self-titled “little leg.”
Due to issues that occurred because his knee was deformed, he had surgery once a year until he was seven years old.
“My coping mechanism is to forget. I really don’t remember that much,” he said. “I remember my last major one because after it I was a new kid.”
After major surgery at the age of seven, Parnell said he tried to play every sport possible and started playing Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball in middle school. Despite his love of competition, his knee continued to be an issue. Missing several tendons in his knee made it unstable, and he said he would dislocate his kneecap approximately once every four games, eventually tearing his meniscus.
After yet another surgery to repair his knee, doctors told Parnell he could no longer play basketball but still needed to work out to rehabilitate and avoid arthritis. With basketball no longer an option, Parnell found that swimming was something he enjoyed and was easier on his knee.
Always the competitor, Parnell then discovered water polo, a sport that requires both mental and physical strength.
“Growing up, my family never questioned if I was going to do something. It was always a question of when,” Parnell said. “I have an inward drive to prove that I’m good enough that probably comes from having my leg how it is.”
For teammate Drew Moyer, senior utility, this drive was on full display when the team started its conditioning practices in the offseason. One of the initial drills was a three-mile run, something Ploessell told Parnell he could sit out.
“Coach told him he didn’t have to run with us, and he basically said ‘I can do this,’” Moyer said. “Seeing him run up the stadium with us was unbelievable.”
As the practices continued, Moyer said Parnell continued to amaze teammates with his relentless work ethic and burning competition. Yet it wasn’t just his attitude that stood out as Parnell quickly established himself as a key part of the team.
“He’s a really strong athlete, and if you underestimate him, you’re going to get worked,” said Garrett Aanestad, a junior utility player.
Although Parnell has to hop on one leg to get into the pool, once submerged he looks like every other player in the water. Being treated normally is the ultimate goal for Parnell who uses humor to make those around him feel comfortable. Rather than getting offended by nicknames or playful teasing, Parnell enjoys it, chasing players around the pool with his “little leg.”
“I’m not handicapped. For me, that’s a slur. And even though I’m technically disabled I hate that word,” he said. “I may have to hop to get places or do something differently, but that doesn’t make me disabled.“
While Parnell strives to be treated normally, those around him can’t help looking to him for motivation.
“He’s an inspiration to everyone and he makes every other excuse look petty,” Moyer said. “Everyday he does something incredible.”
Living up to this responsibility is challenging for Parnell but also inspires him to work harder. Rather than being overwhelmed by the extra attention, he uses it to constantly work harder and get better. To Parnell, his leg is just one aspect of his life.
“Some people have big ears and some people have black hair,” he said. “I happen to have a prosthetic leg.”