A special group of swimmers

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 8, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Huffing and puffing, Ben Dalton drags himself toward the edge of the Suffolk YMCA pool. Clinging to his kickboard as though it was a life preserver saving him from the dark depths of the ocean, the 13-year-old can hardly keep his eyes open long enough to see two other competitors in the race get there first.

At long last, Dalton makes it to the finish. Then he seems to take on a new life.

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As he looked up, a smile breaks across his face. His fist goes toward the sky. &uot;Oh yeah!&uot; he shouts. &uot;That was the best!&uot; He and the rest of the members of the Suffolk Special Olympics swim team douse in other in congratulatory splashes and high-fives.

According to assistant coach Kathleen McAllister-Morgan, the race’s ending was just one more example of why she’s glad to be a veteran of Special Olympics coaching. &uot;It’s always had a special place in my heart,&uot; says McAllister-Morgan, who started working with the mentally challenged at Portsmouth’s &uot;Holiday House&uot; during her college years and went on to coach Special Olympics track and field at Western Branch High School.

&uot;They’re easy to coach,&uot; she says of her charges, who have just made a game of tossing rings to the bottom of the pool and heading down to retrieve them. &uot;They’re more fun, but they’re just as competitive. It’s more enjoyable because they’re always happy. Everything is an achievement; there’s never failure. Whether they finish first or last, they’re always encouraged.&uot;

Pulling up at the edge of the pool, Kristen Dodds pushes up her goggles and tries to recover from the fatigue of a 100-yard freestyle swim. &uot;I want to do backstrokes to get better at it,&uot; says the 19-year-old Western Branch student. &uot;I’ve been doing a lot of kicking on the kickboards. It’s a lot of fun to swim!

&uot;I’m tired!&uot; she tells McAllister-Morgan.

&uot;The secret is to relax!&uot; explains the coach. &uot;The lazy swimmers are always the best! Did you ever see a fish fight the water?&uot; A grinning Dodds grabs a kickboard, and steps back down the pool.

The team practices at the YMCA from 6:30 to 8 p.m. every Sunday. &uot;It’s a free class,&uot; says coach Mike Clark. &uot;I really wanted to get a program started, because special Olympics kids in Suffolk don’t have anything like it.&uot;

&uot;Swimming is one of my favorite sports, and it helps them get some exercise,&uot; says Clark, who has been working with Special Olympians for four years. &uot;They get to test their skills, and we go from there. We just need more athletes, and more volunteers.&uot;

On the side of the pool, Kay Dudley watches her daughter Cindy work with McAllister-Morgan and Clark, plying her skills at nabbing items from the pool floor. &uot;Cindy needed to get involved with people who are on her level,&uot; says Dudley, whose 40-year-old child has the mentality of a 7-year-old, rendered so by a birth defect. &uot;She’s been doing special Olympics for 30 years – gymnastics, softball, bowling, everything. She’s excited about swimming, but she gets a little bit frightened because she doesn’t always know who she’s going to see.&uot;

Meanwhile, in the pool, Cindy finally grabs a ring. &uot;That was great!&uot; cheers McAllister-Morgan. &uot;That was really good! That was your best ever!&uot;

Cindy doesn’t answer. It’s OK – her mile-wide grin speaks volumes.

For details, call Clark at 287-7156.