BROOKFIELD Special swimmers excel
BROOKFIELD — Jen Laden has been bringing her kids to the Greenknoll YMCA since they moved to Brookfield about nine years ago.
But this was the first year her 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter participated in the same structured sport, thanks to the YMCA’s new swim team for people with special needs.
Laden’s son, Eamonn Murphy, who is autistic and has limited verbal skills, joined the special needs team, while her daughter has been a longtime member of the Mako Swim Club, the team for kids 5 to 18.
“It was nice to have your kids in the same activity, which is hard when you have a kid with special needs,” Laden said.
Murphy swam through the Special Olympics in Ridgefield last year, but this was an opportunity for him to learn from instructors with backgrounds in special education and swimming.
“We thought it was a really unique program that we would benefit from,” Laden said. “One of his strengths is physical activity. He has a lot of energy.”
Wife and husband Katey and Jason Paige launched the special needs team at Greenknoll in January. Jason Paige coaches Mako, while Katey Paige is a special education teacher at New Canaan High School and helped start a special needs team at the YMCA in New Canaan.
Starting a similar team in Brookfield has long been a dream for her.
“It combines both of my passions,” Katey Paige said.
But Greenknoll never had space for the team until the YMCA opened a year-round outdoor pool last fall. The pool is covered by an inflatable bubble in the colder months, allowing Greenknoll to expand its programming.
Five swimmers age 8 to 20 were on the team, but all ages were welcome.
The special needs team met once a week at the same time as Mako’s daily practice, so kids from all abilities shared the pool together.
Murphy excels in sports, Laden said. He has participated in Whisconier Middle School’s unified sports program, therapeutic horseback riding and the Leaps of Faith adaptive water skiing group in Newtown.
But swimming is particularly calming, Laden said.
“Being in the water is a lot of movement,” she said. “It’s really relaxing.”
When Murphy was young and learning to swim, Laden would swim in front of her son, while her husband would be behind. But now, Murphy can swim laps by himself for 45 minutes, in part because of his time on the team.
“For us, things he can do independently is a big improvement,” Laden said.
The coaches noted growth in the swimmers throughout the season. The Paiges focused on setting a routine, while also building the swimmers’ skills.
Katey Paige noted one boy who she had worried didn’t have the energy to swim a full lap at the beginning of the season. But, soon his stamina grew.
“Over the course of the past few months, he got stronger and stronger,” she said.
The big challenge was getting the swimmers used to diving off the blocks, but by the end of the season they were comfortable, the coaches said.
Swimmers grew closer, too, giving each other nicknames and cheering for each other.
“It became a little team itself,” Jason Paige said.
The season culminated with a meet with the New Canaan team. The coaches didn’t keep time, but the swimmers dove off the blocks and raced as their parents cheered and snapped photos.
One child gave a great laugh when his head emerged from the water, Jason Paige said.
“There were a lot of smiles and everyone was excited to have that opportunity,” he said.
Next year, the YMCA hopes to add coaches and create a team of 12 that would practice two nights a week.
“We’re trying to expand to the point where we’re providing a greater service to the community,” Jason Paige said.