It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday, and Cameron Lutges doesn’t need help pulling blue socks over his femurs.
He doesn’t need help securing his “stubby” prosthetics.
He doesn’t need help clambering down the cement bleachers at Santa Clarita Aquatic Center. Doesn’t need a hand with his backpack.
He asks a visitor if it’s all right if he shuffles to the locker room and changes out of his swim gear before they meet his dad, Alex, in the parking lot.
Three minutes later, a desk attendant coos, “Cameron.”
Lutges responds, “Hi, Isaac.”
Yes, Isaac later says, Cameron is always pleasant.
No, moments later, Lutges doesn’t need help pulling himself up into Alex’s imposing white truck.
It’s always been this way for the 15-year-old double amputee who has brought inspiration, laughs and surprisingly smooth strokes to the Saugus High swim program this season.
When Lutges was a toddler, Alex hesitantly took doctors orders to pull toys away from his second born — whose legs had been amputated just above the knee at 10 months old — rather than push them toward him.
“I go, ‘Well, geeze, he’s just a kid.’ But then I looked at it and didn’t want him grow up sitting back thinking, ‘Hey, can you get that for me? Can you reach that for me?’” Alex says of Cameron, who was born without developed tibia bones. “Then he’d just be sitting around waiting for everyone to do things for him. This way, we went ahead and told him, ‘You can grab it.’”
Lutges never stops reaching.
Back atop the cement bleachers, the word challenge doesn’t resonate with the boy who preschool teachers once called down from dome-shaped climbing equipment and who threw himself into games of handball.
“I don’t really run into that many challenges,” Lutges says. “If I do run into a challenge, I just find a way around it.”
During Saugus High’s freshman orientation last semester, Lutges marched up to swim coach Jim Klipfel and made a declaration.
“I’m Cameron Lutges, and I’m going to make your swim team,” Klipfel recalls.
In the months that followed, like clockwork, over email or in person, Lutges asked the coach about tryouts.
No, not yet. No, we’ll let you know.
The day finally arrived. Lutges swam the freestyle OK. His butterfly wasn’t terrible.
It was enough for Klipfel and co-coach Krista Botton to take a flier on the kid with spunk. The kid with will — and skill that wasn’t immediately obvious.
Lutges learned the strokes. He frequented practice. He didn’t slow drills down. He kept up.
His arms cramped at times. He didn’t always finish workouts. But he wanted to. His teammates wanted him to. They found him inspiring. They found him funny.
In the parking lot before practice, when they weren’t paying attention, Lutges would untie their shoes and scurry off.
“They know who it is, of course,” he chuckles.
On a team bus trip, the driver yelled at swimmers to sit down and stop switching seats.
According to a teammate, Lutges popped his head up and said, “You know it’s not me because I can’t even stand.”
He’s comfortable in his skin. Comfortable discussing the legs that aren’t.
Botton once told him she’d give him her legs if she could. He said he wouldn’t want them.
“This makes me who I am, and I’m unique,” Lutges says. “I feel I wouldn’t be the same person if I had legs.”
Lutges likes In-N-Out, Chinese and chili (“I do like healthy stuff,” he promises).
He likes first-person shooter games like “Call of Duty,” and survival games like “Minecraft.”
He loves the family atmosphere of Saugus swim.
Klipfel’s and Botton’s team rules are twofold: the coaches’ job is to love the swimmers. The swimmers’ job is to love each other.
On one hand, that atmosphere seems tailor-made for a double-amputee swimmer. Really, though, Lutges has strengthened the program’s bond.
“This year, especially, I feel we’ve become a lot more of a family,” says Saugus senior Cameron Helm, “and I think a lot of that is due to Cameron Lutges.”
Lutges’ unifying force extends beyond his teammates. Take Saugus’ preleague meet at Glendora High, for instance.
The kid with no legs took his turn in the pool, and both teams went so crazy they might’ve blown the roof off the complex had there been one.
Lutges heard the cheers only when he breathed. Then he plunged his head back below the water he’d always taken a liking to but never before competed in.
Swimming lessons as a kid were mostly for safety’s sake. He tried baseball and track and martial arts. For one reason or another, nothing stuck.
He wanted to be on a team. He wanted to exercise his entire body. He wanted to slim down.
“I wasn’t liking how I looked,” he says.
Alex told him if he was going to swim, he had to commit to the long haul. Lutges agreed.
As he puts more practices under his belt, he dreams of swimming at a CIF postseason competition, maybe even in the Paralympic Games.
For now, he perfects his craft. Saugus coaches say he dropped time at a faster rate than just about anyone on the team this year.
Earlier this week, he DQ’d in both his events at Foothill League junior varsity prelims, but he quickly shifted his focus to next year when his presence at swim meets will hardly go unnoticed, but will drift even further toward the norm.
He belongs. But he still inspires.
“His dedication to something that is way harder for him than for most is absolutely amazing,” says Valencia High coach Kathy Rosenast. “Everyone loves him. You know him for lots of reasons, but you know him mostly because he’s just a really nice young man.”
At the Aquatic Center on a recent afternoon, Lutges sits among a host of standing athletes behind the starting blocks.
He looks around at no one particular. As his race nears, his eyes shift to the pool. He climbs up onto the starting block. He pulls his goggles down over his eyes.
He flings himself into the water.