Dutcher lost his right foot in a lawnmower accident but wouldn't change a thing
Tye Dutcher wouldn’t change a thing about the day that changed his life.
Like any 11-year-old boy, Dutcher wanted to play a trick on his father, Doug, who was cutting the grass on a riding lawnmower, that day in March 2008. Dutcher snuck up behind his father with a rubber band gun “just like a covert ops soldier,” Dutcher says. Doug didn’t see or hear his son because he was wearing protective goggles and earplugs. As he reached the edge of the lawn and put the machine in reverse, he felt a bump. The blade of the mower ran over Dutcher’s right foot, slicing it off.
Doug sprang into action. He ran inside their house to grab towels to stop the bleeding, called 9-1-1, and begged his son to avert his eyes. Dutcher was airlifted to a medical center in Sacramento more than 100 miles from their home in Merced, California, and had four surgeries in 11 days. His foot was amputated two inches above his ankle.
Dutcher, who now wears a prosthetic from the knee down, was in the hospital for about a month. Physical therapy was challenging at times, and he had to learn how to live his new reality. For a while, he didn’t want to look at the bottom of his right leg because he thought it was weird. “It was scary,” Dutcher says. “Every time I took a bath, my mom covered my leg so I wouldn’t look at it because I was terrified of it.” It wasn’t until his physical therapist challenged him to just look at his leg that he felt comfortable with it. “When I finally looked, I was, like, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad,’” Dutcher says.
Although he often felt sad, Dutcher worked hard to change his perspective and chose a mindset of gratefulness and purpose. He’s stuck with it ever since.
“I said to my mom after my first surgery that I know this happened for a reason,” Dutcher says. “My mom actually wrote that down to keep a record of everything I said. I knew there was a reason behind this. And I’ve been living it out since then.”
That reason manifested itself into Dutcher, now 24, becoming a Paralympian when he competed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
“For something that looked horrible … his life has been so ordained and planned,” Doug says. “He’s just getting better and stronger through all of it.”
An Early Start
Dutcher likes to say he was born in the water. His family had a pool in their backyard, and his earliest swimming memory is of his oldest brother throwing him in the water and telling him to swim to him (it was playful, and his brother always grabbed him to keep him safe).
The youngest of five kids, Dutcher loved to follow in his older siblings’ footsteps. First it was swimming, which he had begun doing four years before his accident, then it was water polo. He wanted to keep following them into the military, but his accident prevented that. Dutcher says he would’ve loved to become a Navy SEAL because he believes he embodies the necessary work ethic and discipline. Instead, he represents his family and country as a swimmer on the international stage.
“It means everything to me,” Dutcher says. “Seeing my siblings go into the military, it made me want to represent my country in some way.”
Competitive swimming took off for Dutcher while he was in high school. Even without his right foot, he competed—and beat—able-bodied swimmers. At Auburn Riverside High School in the Seattle area, Dutcher was an accomplished water polo player and, he says, a half-second away from breaking the school record in the 100 backstroke.
A few months before he graduated, The Seattle Times wrote a feature story chronicling Dutcher’s extraordinary journey from the horrific lawnmower accident to swimming on the high school varsity team. After the article came out, a local coach named Kiko Van Zandt reached out to Dutcher’s high school coach wanting to help Dutcher. She invited the swimmer to her pool and hooked him up with a GoPro so he could film himself working out. Her plan was to then send his swimming clips to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He received an invitation to live and train there leading up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
While there, Dutcher had an opportunity to meet and watch 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps train.
“I got to observe his stroke, which was so cool,” Dutcher says.
Dutcher didn’t medal in Rio de Janeiro, but the experience lit a fire under him for Tokyo. Since then, he won bronze in the 100 backstroke at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships and later won a gold and two bronze medals at the 2019 Parapan American Games. Dutcher competes in the S10 classification, which is for athletes with the least severe physical impairments, and he swims either butterfly, backstroke, or freestyle events.
Dutcher had to recover—mentally and physically—after his surgeries. But perhaps the greatest residual effect wasn’t repairing his body but rather his relationship with his father.
“We both thought it was our fault and kept saying sorry to each other,” Dutcher says.
Healing ultimately came during a long car ride from their home in Merced (where Dutcher lived until his family moved to the Seattle area while he was in high school) to Tucson, Arizona, to visit one of Dutcher’s brothers at an Air Force base. Dutcher remembers deciding to broach the topic during one long strip of desert. Father and son opened up to each other, expressing all of their raw feelings and emotions.
“We didn't understand if we were forgiving each other or mad at each other,” Doug says. “I told him, ‘I'm not mad or upset with you,’ and he said the same thing. It’s just about forgiveness. We were both hurting, but we could do it together.”
In the end, both men felt relief and peace, and their relationship is as strong as ever.
“I am just amazed at what he’s done and accomplished,” Doug says. “He’s an inspiration.”
Doug and Kim, Dutcher’s mother, both say their son has always been disciplined and driven but became even more so after the incident. Not swimming or playing water polo again wasn’t even an option for him. In fact, he was back in the water three months after the accident because he missed the pool so much.
“When I got in the water, it was freedom,” Dutcher says. “It felt amazing. I knew in that instant that I was made for this. This is where I'm supposed to be. I’m weightless and free and I can do anything everybody else is doing. I can do that outside the pool too, but in the pool, it's different.”
Love of the Sport
After the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, Dutcher moved to Phoenix, where he connected with 35-year coaching veteran Brian Hoffer, who coached at Arizona State University for six and a half years and the University of Missouri for 18. Dutcher believes the change of scenery, the chance to get away from the Paralympic training center and live a more balanced life, was a good lifestyle choice. He swam most days and took up a part-time job working as a barista in a coffee shop, which is where he met his wife, Emma, who’s an opera singer.
Hoffer was drawn to Dutcher because of his unique talent. He’d coached at various levels but never trained anyone missing a limb. He saw Dutcher’s potential and decided to coach him as well.
It helped that their personalities clicked too.
“We never make excuses,” Hoffer says. “We just find ways to make it work.”
Hoffer doesn't make too many adaptations for Dutcher just because he’s missing a foot, and Dutcher believes this is actually what’s helped him the most. He never wants coaches to treat him differently than they would an able-bodied swimmer.
Of course, there were and sometimes still are growing pains. After the accident, Dutcher had to relearn how to kick without his right foot. “I have to do very small, tight kicks that’s driven from my core, otherwise the balance is so off,” Dutcher says. He admits that he still messes up and sometimes swims into the lane line. But that it’s OK.
“He gives me everything he's got every day,” Hoffer says.
One of Dutcher’s favorite ways to train is with Phoenix Swim Club, which he started doing in 2018 leading up to the 2019 USMS Spring National Championship in Mesa, Arizona. Hoffer, who often swam with the club before the coronavirus pandemic, thought it would be a great experience given the range of swimmers Dutcher could be exposed to. There were people of all ages and swimming levels with different goals. Some swam to train for triathlons, while others swam just for fun.
“I told Tye, ‘These people will motivate you way more than some 16-year-old who's really good. These people do it because they love it,’” Hoffer says. “That was the reason I wanted him to be around it. To see the excitement of people in their 40s, 50s, or later having fun with the sport.
“Sometimes when you're in this mindset of ‘I have to make the team or I have to win gold medals,’ it’s kind of a grind. And when you see people swimming for love of the sport, I felt that it was good for him to see. That’s why I pushed him to do it.”
Dutcher, an unattached member within the Arizona LMSC, loves when Masters swimmers would get in the lane next to him and cheer him on if he was working on an interval set with Hoffer.
“Combining my training with Masters was a great way to be around people,” Hoffer says. “And they all encouraged him. I saw that for him to be a real positive every day.”
Dutcher amped up his training for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, which were postponed one year because of the pandemic. He’s had to get creative over the past year while Olympic-size pools were closed, adapting his workouts by using anything he had access to, like swimming in his in-laws’ backyard pool. Adversity is nothing new for him.
“I adapted, just like I had in the past,” Dutcher says.
Although Dutcher missed qualifying for his second Paralympics at June’s U.S. Paralympic Team swimming trials, Dutcher will get stronger and push through to achieve his future goals without any excuses.
“I told my dad, ‘I’m thankful this happened,’” Dutcher says. “I wouldn’t be getting these blessings I’m getting now or inspiring people like I am now. And that’s what I want to do. Success to me is inspiring somebody.”
- Human Interest