For the Behrens and Love families
Michael was a new swimmer on the team, and he was struggling to keep up. The summer league is low-key and relaxed, so our coach decided to approach the other coaches in the league about allowing Michael to compete in a younger age bracket than his own. Our coach expected no objections.
Kids’ swim competitions are bracketed by age. Ages 8 and under is the youngest category, and all races in this age group are a single length of the pool. Michael was 9, and some races in the 9-10 category required two lengths of the pool. Michael has Down syndrome, and as a new swimmer, there was no way he could swim that far. Our coach had asked the other coaches if they would allow Michael to compete with the 8-and-under boys. He stressed that Michael would not swim in the round in which points could be won. In other words, the exception would have no effect on team scores. It was just the right thing to do.
Five coaches agreed whole-heartedly. The sixth coach opposed the idea, concerned that it would set a bad precedent and lead to other kids’ seeking exceptions. "But Michael is an exceptional kid, so he deserves an exception," our coach argued. "We’re not trying to change league rules. We just want this kid to be able to swim a length of the pool like other kids." Reluctantly, the holdout coach agreed.
Michael had already become a favorite with other kids on the team. He was cheerful, and quick to root for others as they swam. A few weeks into the summer season, Michael had his first race. It was held in the indoor pool at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
As six boys lined up on the blocks for Michael’s first race, each took the stance of a swimmer ready to dive into the pool – all except Michael. He stood upright, enjoying the view. The horn blared to start the race, and the other boys dove into the water. Coaches and teammates called to Michael that it was time to start, so he climbed into the pool, looked around in excitement, then began to swim. As Michael took his first stroke, the other swimmers were almost halfway to the finish.
Michael swam steadily but unhurriedly. His teammates, especially the younger ones, hurried to the other end of the pool to cheer him on. They got onto their bellies on the deck of the pool, hollering, "C’mon, Michael! You can do it! Go, Michael!"
The other swimmers reached the end of the pool, touched the wall, and slipped out of the water. Michael was not quite to the halfway mark. The cheering from the stands grew more insistent for the lone swimmer. Before long, everyone was standing, screaming and cheering to spur him on. "Michael is a special kid," parents explained to those around them. "And it’s his first race."
By the three-quarter mark, mothers were wiping misty eyes, and fathers cheered as if Michael was their own son. Even swimmers from the opposing team cheered for him.
After what was surely the most leisurely race ever timed in the Haddam-Killingworth pool, Michael touched the wall to finish. The place erupted into deafening cheers, reverberating off the metal roof to make a thunderous sound. Michael lifted his head out of the water, and hearing the explosion of voices, he looked around to see what was happening. Only when he saw that he was alone in the pool did he realize that the cheers were for him. In a classic pose of triumph, Michael stood up, broke into a wide grin and raised his arms to the sky in victory.
I don’t remember which team won the meet that day. I don’t remember what races my own kids swam, or if they won any ribbons or if anyone broke team records.
But every adult in the sweltering pool house that evening remembers one thing. We remember that Michael won the race.
Michael went on to compete in Special Olympics. Currently, he holds the Connecticut record for the second fastest time of 1:22 in the 100 Freestyle.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.