Special Olympics athletes in the swim of things

Robert Fisher photo Special Olympics coach Skylar Russell speaks with swimmer Russell Berdan at the pool edge during practice Nov. 1 at the Garcelon Civic Center.

ST. STEPHEN – Cameron Craig loves being in the water.

The 22-year-old has been swimming at the Garcelon Civic Center for a few years. He enjoys the pools and has discovered the sauna. For the first time, earlier in this autumn, he steeled himself to go down the water slide.

Asked how he got up the courage to finally go down the slide, he proudly said, “By believing in myself!”

When he’s not in the pool, Craig likes to go into the arena and watch hockey.

His mother, Lisa Craig, said her son has been swimming since he jumped in the pool at about age 10.

“He’d be in the water all the time,” if he could, she said.

Craig said after he went down the water slide for the first time he was so proud of himself.

“He had to tell everybody when he got home,” she said.

Practices began Nov. 1 for the first Special Olympics swim team from St. Stephen, of which Craig is one of the team’s first members. Garcelon Civic Center aquatics and programming director Aaron Muzzatti said in the past, pre-COVID, the centre had done swim nights for people with special needs and that this was the first time they were working through the Special Olympics program.

“This is our first organized, formal, sport-based Special Olympics program,” said Muzzatti.

While the program is starting with just swimming, Muzzatti is hopeful he can broaden the scope over time to perhaps include tennis and basketball.

Muzzatti was encouraged by the turnout for the first practice and said based on feedback he received, the participants would all be coming back in future weeks. He’s hopeful that as word starts to get out, more will register for the program.

While some of the athletes may have been swimming for years and have some well-developed strokes, there are still things they need to work on. Muzzatti said one of the things they were learning the first night was flip turns. He also said building up endurance would be important as they progressed in the program.

The age range for participants is 16 and older. The program got started a bit later than usual – normally the program starts in September and runs through the end of June. There are provincial, national and international levels of competition available through the Special Olympics program. Right now, Muzzatti is thinking it will remain a local program. He and the coaches will see how the swimmers develop and make a decision at a later date whether to try moving some of the athletes to a more competitive level.