Berger an inspiration for Ridgefield swim team

In juniors Kieran Smith and AJ Bornstein, the Ridgefield High boys swim team has two nationally ranked standouts who participated in last year’s U.S. Olympic Trials.

In senior Max Berger, the Tigers have one of the country’s most inspiring competitors.

Diagnosed with severe autism when he was two years old, Max has limited verbal and motor skills, sensitivity to sensory stimulus, and difficulty with extended concentration. At Ridgefield High, he spends his school day working one-on-one with a trained aide.

When Max was younger, his parents got him involved with Swim Angelfish, an aquatic program for children with special needs that combines swim lessons with physical therapy.

“He took to it right away,” said Max’s mother, Shira. “He loves the water. It calms him down.”

Looking to get Max involved in a high school sport — as a way to provide exercise and a chance to integrate with non-special-needs students — his mom approached RHS officials last year. The result was a roster spot on the boys swim team.

“Right away, he became the spirit of the team,” said Ridgefield head coach Emmanuel Lanzo. “He has great energy; everyone loves Max.”

Although Max was eager to rejoin the RHS team as a senior this winter, his return was complicated by a different medical challenge. Last spring, he was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

“He had tumors in his chest and neck,” said Shira Berger. “He went through four rounds of chemo and radiation. His special needs actually helped in a way because he didn’t understand the ramifications or the severity of what he was going through.”

In December — three months after treatments ended— tests showed no signs of cancer. And with that clearance, Max was able to get back in the pool at Barlow Mountain with the rest of his RHS teammates for the 2016-17 season.

When Max competes (in exhibition heats of the 50-meter freestyle), those teammates stand and roar as he doggie paddles to the finish while keeping his head out of the water. “For some reason, he doesn’t like to get his hair wet,” said his mom..

“It’s really an overwhelming feeling for a parent,” said Shira Berger. “He’s up against so much, and everything is so difficult for him. But in this little microcosm of swimming he’s accepted. He’s a part of something.”