Special Olympics is a special program. Since its founding in 1968, the non-profit has transformed countless lives through sports. Nearly 5 million athletes in 169 countries — and over a million volunteers — participate each year.
But the Westport Weston Family YMCA‘s Special Olympics program is extra special.
It began just over a year ago, as a dream of Westporters Marshall and Johanna Kiev. Working with Y officials and members, it quickly grew to include a basketball program (13 special needs athletes and 13 partners practiced weekly, and competed at a Holiday Sports Classic). A track and field team will be added soon.
But it’s the swim program that’s really made waves.
Two dozen youngsters, of varying physical and intellectual abilities, practice every Sunday — under the guidance of real, professional swim coaches. They’re one of the few Special Olympics teams anywhere that does that.
Barbara Bachuretz has spent 30 years training swimmers. Erin Ritz is a Westport Y Water Rat coach.
They’re backed by a corps of dedicated volunteers. The group includes former Amherst swimmer and water polo player Peter Nussbaum, and Hopkins School freshman Henry Fisher. Both live in Westport.
In June — proudly bearing the name Water Rats — 24 swimmers traveled to the Summer Special Olympics Games at Southern Connecticut State University. They were the only team there whose special needs youngsters swam all 4 laps of the relay. All other relay teams included unified partners.
The Water Rats Special Olympics team amassed over 30 medals. It was a great event for the entire group.
But individual stories stand out too.
Y senior program coordinator Jay Jaronko remembers a 14-year-old who was very nervous. Jay and his coaches assured him he could watch other swimmers before his race, to feel comfortable about the event.
But when they got to the meet, the boy was scheduled to race first. Casting aside his fears, he focused directly on his lane. He got in the water, stared straight ahead — and finished first by an astonishing half pool length.
Then he headed off with teammates to the concession stand. His amazed parents told Jaronko, “he’s never done that in his life.”
“I was hooked on Special Olympics before that,” Jaronko says. “But that was the point when I really, truly got it.”
Another story: After the Summer Games, a father told Jaronko that teammates would be at his son’s upcoming birthday party. That too was a first.
This year, Jaronko reports, that boy is swimming and playing water polo for his high school.
“We’re doing a lot more than just teaching kids to swim,” the program director says proudly.
Here’s something even more special: The entire Y Special Olympics program is free.
There’s no registration free, no charge for apparel — nothing. Even meals are covered.
The Y covers all the funds. The Kiev family has been great, throwing fundraising parties to help.
This year’s budget is $46,000.
The program is worth every penny.
(For more information on the Westport Y’s Special Olympics swim program, click here; call Jay Jaronko at 203-226-8983, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more about the Kievs and their daughter Chloe, click here.)