For someone once told his body couldn’t handle competitive sports, it’s now the competition who is having a hard time handling Nathaniel Hartley.
Hartley, 16, won two more North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association titles Feb. 16. Both at 100 yards, they came in freestyle and backstroke swims. They were the only two individual events Hartley entered.
“It shows that hard work pays off,” said the Gaston Day School sophomore, who lives in Lake Wylie. “I was very tired, but it was a great experience.”
Hartley won the freestyle event by almost three seconds, the same split separating second through sixth places. Hartley’s time came in .48 seconds off the state record.
His backstroke was even better. Hartley’s 52.86 set a new state record, breaking his own mark from last year by more than a full second.
Hartley swam in South Carolina club team state championships for four days, got home at midnight and was out the door five hours later on Feb. 16 for the drive to Greensboro, N.C.
“He was pretty wiped out and still pulled out enough energy to do well,” said mom Elizabeth Hartley. “This makes his fourth and fifth state titles.”
Hartley swam to a relay win in the South Carolina event, a more competitive venue for top swimmers. He’s hoping to earn more titles the next two years and a scholarship to swim in college.
Hartley never dreamed he’d reach that level of competition a decade ago.
“The doctors said I couldn’t do contact sports anymore because I could have a brain hemorrhage,” he said.
Hartley learned he had a rare blood disorder called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, or ITP. It involves platelets and bone marrow, but to the 6-year-old it meant no T-ball, basketball, other sports.
“Whenever I got cut, it would bleed very easily and wouldn’t clot,” he said.
The condition required chemotherapy and he received a Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World. Many people struggle with the condition for about six months. Hartley dealt with it six or seven years.
Looking for something positive, Hartley and his parents asked their doctor what he would be able to do. The doctor OKd continuing to swim, which Hartley had been doing for two years already. He dove into workouts and competition with the River Hills Sharks, then club and school teams.
Gaston Day coach Dee Dee Stilphen says Hartley’s year-round dedication to swimming makes her job easy.
“I would tell Nathaniel, I’m his manager,” she said. “I put him in events.”
While his body once made some sports unplayable, it far from limits Hartley in the water. At 6’5 and with an even longer wingspan, not to mention the size 16 shoes, his frame fits the sport.
“He automatically has flippers,” Stilphen said.
Hartley starts practice at 5 a.m. two days a week, has two-hour afternoon practices and fits in weight training around school and social life. In some ways that diagnosis years ago helped him focus.
Now he’s adding up state titles, with no plans on stopping soon.
“Hopefully there’s a lot more room for improvement,” Hartley said.