09 March 2023

Building resilience through Special Olympics sport

Jane Ford, Parent to Parent’s Regional Coordinator for Coastal Bay of Plenty, tells us about her experience as a volunteer Special Olympics swim trainer and—to celebrate World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD)—what her athletes with Down syndrome have taught her.

With over 15,000 km of coastline, learning to swim is both an essential and enriching life skill for New Zealanders. Having run her own swim school in Papamoa for eight years, then worked for the Red Cross as Community Programmes Coordinator (teaching First Aid to under twelves and delivering a youth drug and alcohol programme—which took her into schools, youth correction facilities, probation centres and the like), Jane is familiar with leading life-saving initiatives both in the water and out.

Papamoa was a small town back in 2008, when Jane started a swim school from her family’s house, but the community grew quickly around them. The school became quite a hub for new families and the single-class setup really suited children with disabilities, so this part of her swim teaching fast became her passion. Jane believes her community involvement and volunteering stemmed from there, and from the example her sons gave her.

“All of my sons have been swim teachers, and they all did Special Olympics volunteering through school,” Jane explains. Her eldest saw the advert seeking Special Olympics swim coach volunteers and encouraged her to apply, “So that’s what motivated me… I wasn’t sure, particularly about the early mornings, but my son made me! And now I love it.”

A guiding principle in Jane’s training philosophy is ‘teach to the swimmer’s ability not their disability,’ which reflects this year’s WDSD theme: With Us Not For Us.

It is a phrase so integral to her teaching that she struggles, at first, to pinpoint how many athletes with Down syndrome are in her Development Team, “We have been training together so long, you don’t notice the disability, just the ability,” she explains.

Tauranga Special Olympics swim team at the opening ceremony of the National Summer Games in Hamilton, December 2022.

Tauranga Special Olympics swim team at the opening ceremony of the National Summer Games in Hamilton, December 2022. Photo courtesy of Special Olympics New Zealand.

The ability is clear in their representation within the squad. Out of a core group of 10 athletes whom Jane has trained for four years, Cara, Kelly, Anna, Megan and Celeste are the team’s Down syndrome ambassadors. Teia and Brianna recently joined the 16-strong squad, to bring DS representation up to seven.

They are not short of competition for places. The Special Olympics swimming discipline is very popular in Tauranga, with a waitlist for applicants. This is in part due to the coastal location and easy availability of sea or pool swimming as a family activity: in Tauranga, the pools are free for those with a disability. Another reason is the popularity and long-term commitment of the Head Coach/Coordinator, Pat Wakelin, who has been with Special Olympics swimming for 25 years, “She’s amazing, she’s the camp mum”.

The athletes’ enthusiasm for the sport is a key reason that has kept Pat involved for so many years, “Every competition is like being there for the first time again, with all the emotions relived with pride.” The inspiration flows both ways: the athletes’ dedication and spirit inspire the coaches to jump out of bed early every Saturday, and the coaches inspire the athletes to follow their Olympic dreams, through some intense training. A typical session involves 1-1.5 km of swimming, diving, tumbles, and, “Far too much chat and too much fun!”

While they all really enjoy the social side too, Jane is keen to emphasise that the programme is run just like any squad. They are there because they are Olympic swimmers and, hopefully, they train a couple more times a week as well. Currently, Jane’s working with the development squad and bringing in some new swimmers that will move up to the competitive squad in a few years.

The older swimmers have impressive competitive experience to share and inspire the other team members. Cara (45) went to North Carolina in 1999 for Special Olympics World Games, and, after 25 years of being a Special Olympian, this year has stepped up to support Jane in training the new squad. Unsurprisingly, she has proven to be a great swim teacher herself. Kelly (32) also went to Abu Dhabi for Worlds in 2019.

For Worlds, competitors have to be away from home for three weeks and live the life of an Olympian, so athletes don’t just have to be elite in their field, they also need to be independent, able to live on their own and cope without carers. “That’s the biggest challenge and achievement about going to Worlds, it’s the independence gained from it,” explains Jane, “and, whether they have been to Worlds, or are training towards it, what SO swim training teaches them is that they can not only achieve in the pool but also achieve in the wider community as well. They can aim for whatever they want.”

Cara and coach Pat Wakelin after winning gold at the Special Olympics National Summer Games in Hamilton, December 2022.

Cara and coach Pat Wakelin after winning gold at the Special Olympics National Summer Games in Hamilton, December 2022. Photo courtesy of Special Olympics New Zealand.

Cara’s long list of achievements is a testament to that. She volunteers for Parent to Parent, is part of the Enabling Good Lives Community and is Vice President of People First. She also takes part in mainstream sporting events, recently completing the Generation Homes Women’s Triathlon in Mount Maunganui, which includes a 400m Swim, a 10km Cycle, and a 4km Run around the peninsula. She is also a regular competitor in Hart & Sole, and both Kelly and Cara are keen participants in the NZ Ocean Swim Series at Mount Maunganui, last time beating Jane by some margin!

Kelly has worked at MacDonalds for years, is also involved in Special Olympics snow skiing, and recently had a good excuse, along with five others, to skip Saturday training–they were all off to see Ed Sheeran in concert with a group of friends. Cara lives independently, as do Megan (32) and Celeste (38). Celeste has appeared in the TV series ‘Four Go Flatting’ and volunteers for Hospice. Megan has a small business, while Anna (22) is studying and does part-time orchard work.

As Jane explains, the training is not just about elite swimming—it changes their lives. They are making friends, gaining confidence, being part of a team, and developing physically, socially and emotionally:

The swimming is just a little part of the life plan. It is a wonderful way to experience the wider community—as athletes. It also shows the community their ability and potential. It’s become very much part of the Bay’s way of life. Out there in the community, doing things, being seen.

“Pat also takes them away to Swim Meets where they get the additional experiences of going on fun excursions, out for dinner, and spending a couple of nights away, independently. We recently took part in the Summer Games too, which is every four yearsthey all did really well, but it was just as big a buzz to stay in Halls of Residence at Christmas and experience life in a Uni Hall.”

Now, they are working towards this year’s competition swim meets around the North Island, and have their sights set on the next Nationals in Christchurch in three years and Worlds in seven.

To that end, and thinking about the theme of ‘hope’ for this newsletter, Jane sees hope as key to the mentality of an athlete. Hope enables them to remain committed to their goals and motivated to take action to achieve them. It drives the qualities of positivity, resilience and determination—we can do anything if we put our mind to it—that her squad has in spades and that motivate her too. But if she had to sum up, in three words, what her squad has taught her it would be, ‘Enthusiasm for life.’

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