Shortly after birth, MJ Ward’s doctors told his parents that he would never be able to participate in sports.
Athletic activities would place too much strain on his heart, and any violent contact was too risky for a boy who was born with the inside of his body resembling an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.
But after two major surgeries, the outlook improved for the Preston Hollow youngster who had many of his internal organs in the wrong positions, including his heart. It’s a congenital condition known as situs inversus.
More than a decade later, MJ has become one of the top swimmers in the state in his age group. He spends about 12 hours each week in the pool, and swims competitively for one of the top select programs in Texas.
More importantly, his body hasn’t shown any ill effects during his pursuit of prizes in the pool.
“It was like his body acclimated to its own anatomy,” said MJ’s mother, Pamela Wills-Ward.
While he’s not able to follow in the footsteps of his father, Mitchell, who was an all-star fullback in the early days of the Arena Football League, MJ has shown the same competitive drive.
The Wards put MJ in swimming lessons at Town North YMCA when he was 5. A year later, he was swimming on the club team there and broke a record for his age group in the backstroke.
“He loved the water at a young age,” Wills-Ward said. “He gets in the water and he gets in a zone.”
Again, his body responded fine to the increased workload. The doctors at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas monitored his progress, and after extensive testing, gave their blessing for him to continue.
Eventually, Wills-Ward stopped carrying around a list of everything MJ had been diagnosed with, including at least 10 heart defects. And eventually, the chest scar from his surgeries began to fade, meaning he didn’t feel obligated to wear a shirt every time he jumped in the pool.
“I enjoy going against other people,” said MJ, who will be a sixth-grader at Greenhill in the fall.
Meanwhile, MJ has amassed a collection of trophies and medals that consume three shelves in his bedroom. He has won races in high-level statewide events for the Dallas Mustangs, and recently was invited to attend a camp with some Olympic coaches in Florida.
When MJ was an infant, the Wards found comfort in visiting with other young parents enduring similar medical issues. That’s why they enjoy sharing their son’s story, hoping it can help people in the same way.
“With the technology, you find out pretty quickly these days when there’s something wrong with your baby,” Mitchell said. “It was pretty scary. But he’s been blessed.”
The family also has committed itself each year to raising funds for the American Heart Association by launching a successful campaign at Lamplighter School when MJ was a student there. They hope to start a similar effort at Greenhill.
Now, MJ is focused on training for the upcoming season with the Mustangs and working toward his long-term goal of qualifying for the Olympics.
“It seems like he’s determined,” Wills-Ward said. “He’s blessed to be able to participate in swimming, and doubly blessed that he’s good at it.”