Swimming: One last record to break for the reverend who walks on water

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Mingle with the 400 athletes from 45 nations assembled in Manchester this weekend for the Paralympic World Cup and you will be uplifted by scores of heart-warming stories of courage and high achievement born out of adversity, not least that of the paraplegic padre.

Actually, Rev Curtis Lovejoy, a Baptist preacher, is a quadraplegic, able to move only his forearms from the elbows downwards. Yet these have powered him to 20 world records and the same number of gold medals in both swimming and fencing. He also plays wheelchair rugby – and on Tuesday he will be 51.

He was 29, and a district manager for a fried chicken company in charge of a 3,000-strong workforce, when he was involved in a horrific car crash on a rain-sodden Atlanta freeway. It left him paralysed, with a broken neck. "All I can remember is the rain coming down on me and the paramedics saying, 'Heck, this guy's in a bad way'," he says.

At college he played basketball and football but had never swum in his life. Yet it was swimming that turned his life around. "I don't think I'd ever been near water, but as part of the therapy I was put in a lifejacket and lowered into the pool," Lovejoy says.

"I was petrified, my heart was beating so fast. Then they put me in with some dolphins. It was magical. I used to lie there and dream that one day I would be a champion swimmer." That day dawned five years later when he broke the first of his 11 world swimming records, the 50m breaststroke. Two years later he became the first US paraplegic to win a gold medal at fencing.

He had been ordained as a Baptist deacon in 1989, four years after his accident. "I have two things in my life, God and sport. Without them I would be nothing. Sport is the way I express myself in so many different ways. When I am in the water no one sees my disability. I am myself."

The only world record he has not held in his disability group is the 200m freestyle, which he will seek in Beijing. It will be his fourth and, he says, last Paralympics. In Sydney, he set five world records in three days. "After that I was going to retire. But one day I was preaching and God said to me, 'Did I tell you to retire'?"

When he fences, he has a grip blade strapped to his hand. "Fencing is a relaxing art, and actually I use it to help my mental preparation for swimming."

He regularly beats competitors less than half his age. "Being around all these young folks keeps me young too. Getting respect from your colleagues is the greatest regard you can ever have. But without God, none of this would have been possible. I just swim, and when God is ready to do what he wants to do, I let him intervene."

With the South African amputee swimmer Natalie du Toit, who has become the first Paralympian to qualify for the able-bodied Games, Lovejoy is the star attraction. After Beijing he will return full-time to his church, which has a membership of 10,000, and marry his fiancée, Mamie. He has received numerous humanitarian awards and has a US stamp in his honour. He is writing his life story, and like another Baptist minister from Atlanta, Rev Lovejoy can truly declare: "I had a dream."