The central problem of the book is the closed-mindedness and discrimination faced by those who are "different" at Cutter High School.
Tao Jones, the central character of the story, is himself socially on the outskirts at Cutter High because of his mixed-race heritage. Tao, or TJ as he is called, gathers together an unlikely group of misfits on the school swim team, and determines that together, they will each win a school sports jacket, the coveted symbol of prestige at Cutter High. Among the team members are Chris Coughlin, who is mentally handicapped, Daniel Hole, the school "geek", Simon DeLong, who is obese and completely unathletic-looking, and Jackie Craig, who never speaks. Through the unconditional friendship and mutual support the teammates provide for each other, each member is able to overcome challenges both physical and emotional, and emerge better face the prejudices inherent in the high school environment and in society at large.