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Swimming with Angels

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How Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a swimming pool, and twenty athletes made me a better woman.

eunice shriver and swimmers
Susannah Locketti: In addition to my career in food, I have devoted the past five years and the bulk of my week running aquatic and wellness classes for a nonprofit organization servicing adults with developmental disabilities. Two years ago, I took on a life-changing role as the head coach of a Special Olympics Swim Team, consisting of nearly twenty athletes. I was not a sports fan, was terribly out of shape when practices started, and had never been part of any type of team, let alone served as a sports coach! The experience changed my life.

When my athletes arrived for the first day of practice, I was so taken with their desire to succeed. Many were unable to swim or even float, yet they exuded such confidence and grace as they anxiously awaited practice with warm smiles and a positive can-do attitude plastered on their faces. It felt like heaven to be greeted with such warmth, because ironically I was the only nervous person on the team!

I stood on the pool deck with fat oozing out of every corner of my swimsuit, yet for once in my life, I felt comfortable and confident in a bathing suit. At the beach, I used to dread wearing a bathing suit because I felt like everyone was analyzing every square inch of my imperfect body. Yet in front of these unassuming athletes, I felt accepted for who I was with no explanation whatsoever. My swimmers were simply grateful to be part of a team that accepted them unconditionally, no matter their skill level.

We practiced every Saturday for almost three months before our prequalification meet. During that time, I felt like I was swimming with angels. The pool became a place of perfect grace, love, and mutual acceptance. My athletes worked so hard without ever experiencing disappointment, anger, or frustration over what they could not do. Instead, we focused on what they could do, and it fostered success.

We competed in the prequals at a local college, and were surprised to learn the pool did not have a chair lift or ramp entry. Many of my athletes were frail and afraid to take the ladder down into the pool -- but they did it anyway. One swimmer held up the competition nearly fifteen minutes as she cried in fear. It was the most inspiring fifteen minutes of my life, watching her slowly lower herself into the pool water to compete for a victory she worked so hard for. As far as I'm concerned, her victory took place at the stairs, and she was applauded profusely for it.

We took home more gold medals than any other team. I felt as much pride for these athletes as I did for my own children that day. My team taught me to be fearless even when faced with uncertainty. I learned about group camaraderie and support, cheering each other on in life, and being grateful for the skills we do have, rather than focusing on what we cannot do. As they exited the pool, drenched after their victories, my eyes were just as drenched with tears of victory and accomplishment. I'm actually welling up now as I relive this moment because it was just so magical!

My first experience on a team ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and I am truly grateful to Eunice Kennedy Shriver for founding such a valuable organization. Special Olympics grants athletes the ability to succeed, no matter what. The organization also touches the lives of the many volunteers who witness this magic happen year after year. I know, because I feel so blessed and proud to be one of them.

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