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Making a Splash in Windham: The Special Olympics and Eastern

Published on April 07, 2017

Making a Splash in Windham: The Special Olympics and Eastern

When Charlie Wynn was a new chemistry professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in 1979, he and a group of competitive swimmers were in the campus swimming pool when they received an unexpected proposition. They were asked to volunteer as timers for Windham’s first Special Olympics swim meet. Now, 38 years later, Wynn and many more members of the Eastern campus community continue to support the annual event, which has become a community tradition and source of pride.

“Volunteers are the backbone of the Windham Invitational Special Olympics Swim Meet,” said Wynn, who has served as meet director for 23 years. In its inaugural event, the meet had 40 swimmers. Today, more than 200 swimmers compete from seven teams across Connecticut and four from Massachusetts.

More than 350 volunteers were on hand at the March 11, 2017, event, with nearly one-third of them being members of the Eastern campus community. Students, alumni, faculty and staff were paired with Special Olympics athletes as they navigated the day of competition, volunteered as lifeguards, or helped out with sports clinics and other activities.

The Windham Invitational — held annually at Windham High School — is a regional qualifying meet. Those with the best times move on to Connecticut’s Special Olympics summer games. But winning and qualifying is not what the Special Olympics is about. The official oath reads: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“That really says a lot,” said Wynn. “Not everybody wins, at any level, with any kind of ability. But what we should expect of ourselves is the best we can do, and we should be proud of reaching the level that we are capable of. That, I would say, is an important message for all athletes.”

Special Olympics swimmers compete in a variety of strokes — freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke — but what best embodies the meet’s oath are its less expected races. “We have events in the water for people who can’t swim,” said Wynn. “In the shallow end of the pool, they compete in walking races from side to side. Those who aren’t able to walk compete in floating races and vigorously paddle along the water in flotation devices.”

Wynn continued, “They are Special Olympians, and those races are as competitive and enthusiastically watched as the regular races.” The athletes in these competitions are awarded the same medals and ribbons as other winning athletes.

Much of the day’s fun occurs outside of the pool. For the past several years, Eastern’s Greg Kane, professor of kinesiology and physical education (KPE), has had his students lead sports clinics in basketball, bowling, volleyball and more. “We want to provide a fun atmosphere in which participants can interact without the pressure of competition,” said Kane.

Speaking to the educational impact for his students, he added: “Working with individuals who are different from ourselves can be intimidating. It forces students to adapt their knowledge of leadership and sport to populations that they may never have worked with in the past. This is the nexus of critical thinking, content knowledge and experiential learning. This Special Olympics swim meet remains a highlight of the year for my students.”

The Eastern community’s Special Olympics involvement extends beyond this annual swim meet. Adi DeVivo ’12 is the volunteer coordinator of the Windham Invitational as well as coach of the local Windham Waves Special Olympics swim team.

“I get to experience many Special Olympics events every year, but there’s something different about the Windham swim meet,” said DeVivo. “The energy and the fact that every aspect of the meet is coordinated by volunteers creates an amazing atmosphere. There’s a whole lot of people in it for the right reasons who walk away with wonderful memories and a stronger sense of community.”

Both the meet and the local swim team are supported by “Best Buddies,” a student organization at Eastern focused on building friendships between students and people with disabilities. “Having such involvement from Eastern students shows just how inclusive our campus is,” said Julia DeVivo ’19, a swim meet volunteer of five years who double majors in early childhood education and psychology. “I love how caring our campus is and how willing we are to give back to the community.”

Volunteer lifeguard Matthew Sanetrik ’20, a social work major, is drawn to the local Special Olympics for a personal reason. “I made the decision to start volunteering because I have a twin brother with a disability,” he said. “Often times when you grow up with a sibling in a wheel chair, you find ways to incorporate their ability level and adapt activities to allow them to participate.”

Being a lifeguard on the pool deck all day, Sanetrik sees the most intimate moments of the athletes, before, during and after competition. “You see them step up, excited or nervous, and after the race, you see immediately how proud they are of their efforts as they receive high-fives on their way to the awards.”

Of all the feel-good moments that happen during a Special Olympics competition, something that stands out for many is the audience. “The athlete who finishes last gets the loudest applause,” said Sanetrik, “because what truly matters is the attempt.”

“The crowd goes crazy for the last swimmer,” echoed Wynn. “You have to see it. The first time, I choked up.”

Written by Michael Rouleau