MORRIS – At a typical Special Connections Swim Team practice, coach Lynda Kirkman can be heard blowing her whistle and calling out the team’s next workout, while a flurry of arms and legs move toward the end of the pool.
The swimmers don’t seem to mind the endless sprints. In-between workouts, they stop to tell jokes and cheer each other on, like swimmers Lynette Calogero and Shannon Wexell, who paused to giggle and give each other high-fives between laps during Thursday’s practice.
“I like being with my teammates,” swimmer Callie Frazier said. “That’s my favorite part.”
Frazier’s spirit of camaraderie is shared by her 14 teammates on the Special Connections of Grundy County Swim Team.
Special Connections is a local organization that provides social activities and other support services for people with disabilities and their families in and around Grundy County.
Perhaps it’s that support and friendship driving the team’s success, which included winning 11 gold, one silver and three bronze medals this past weekend at the Special Olympic Aquatic Sectionals in Palos Hills. All 15 swimmers on the team won at least one medal, Kirkman said.
“We have three athletes that triple golded,” Kirkman said Monday. “Which is kind of rare.”
The team also boasts having the first Special Connections swimmer in history to qualify for the national Special Olympics USA Games, which only occur every four years.
Team member Rikki Kirsch will travel to New Jersey this June to compete in the 25 meter freestyle. She qualified for the national games after winning the event at the 2013 State Summer Games.
The 11 gold medalists from this weekend will have the chance to advance to the next national games when they swim at the 2014 state games in Bloomington this June.
“State is such an incredible experience,” said Suzanne Thompson, mother of team member Caitlin Cox, an 18-year Special Olympics veteran. “It will give you goosebumps that just won’t end.”
The state competition is a three-day affair and incorporates social events, including a large dance with a professional DJ, Kirkman said.
Paula Campbell, mother of swimmer Colin Campbell, said she loves going to the state competition.
“For them, it’s like being home,” she said. “He’s a totally different person when we go. He’s comfortable and it’s like he finally belongs somewhere.”
Several of the swimmers are involved in other Special Connections athletic teams ,such as bocce ball, golf and basketball.
Team member Lori Jean Harvill has been involved with Special Olympics for the past 39 years, she said. In her long career as an athlete, Harvill has tried nearly all of the sports offered through Special Olympics, but her favorite event is “all of them,” she said.
“I just love it,” she said.
Chris Jansen just joined the swim team four months ago after competing at state for bocce ball in years past. He said he likes staying active and socializing with friends, more than being competitive.
Unlike her teammates, Shannon Wexell focuses her attention on swimming only. Her father, Scott Wexell, said she has been with the team four years, but has always loved being in the water.
“She has no competition in her blood,” Scott Wexell said. “She’s just here for her own pleasure and to make us proud. She always wants to make us proud.”
Kirkman has voluntarily coached the swim team for the past 14 years and has watched several of her swimmers grow up on the team.
Her own son, Drew, also is on the team and has been involved since he was about 4 years old. Despite competing in several state and sectional competitions, he said he still gets nervous before competition.
“I usually can’t go to sleep on time before the event,” Drew said.
Kirkman said they are excited to advance to state again this year.
Thompson said anyone who hasn’t traveled to the state games before should make the trip.
“It’s seeing how we all should be,” she said. “It’s that unconditional love and smiling and cheering everybody on. It’s really powerful.”