A day in the life of a student athlete consists of extensive training on top of managing classes and balancing schoolwork. In short: it’s a demanding lifestyle. And on Tuesday nights, when many students are doing homework, participating in extracurriculars or attending labs, the athletes of Emory’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving team are in the pool, not practicing but coaching members of the local Special Olympics program.
The origin of Emory’s partnership with the Special Olympics program can be traced back 18 years, when Emory alumni Erik Johnson (98C) and Andrew Dober (99C) coached Special Olympic teams at the local YMCA. After they graduated, the Special Olympic team lost their pool time at the YMCA, so the program was undertaken by Emory’s swimming and diving team. Since then, special needs adult swimmers from throughout metro Atlanta and DeKalb County, collectively called the Metro Ducks, gather every Tuesday night at the WoodPEC pool to receive coaching from Emory swimmers.
“We’ll all do some stretching together and then get in the water, and the Emory swimmers will coach and help out the Special Olympic swimmers with their strokes,” program coordinator and College junior Shelby Fruge said. “We always talk to them, as well, and ask them how their days are going, so it’s important that we all have good relationships with them.”
Prior to arriving at Emory, Fruge had experience with special needs children through her mother’s work with them. Fruge also helped out with the Special Olympics team at her high school. Her involvement in helping the Special Olympics team at Emory started her freshman year and has evolved into an extracurricular about which she is truly passionate.
“I was lucky to be given the coordinator position, and I’m loving it so far,” Fruge said. “I’m really excited to be able to take the team to new levels this year and next year.”
While the Emory swimmers only volunteer with the program for an hour a week, the eye-opening elements they gain from the program are monumental.
“You realize how easy it is to get caught up in your own life, so just having that hour a week to give back is a humbling experience,” College senior Annelise Kowalsky said.
For the swimming and diving team, participation in the program is not mandatory. However, this has not reduced athletes’ enthusiasm for coaching the Metro Ducks. In addition to having Monday team meetings that cover the Metro Ducks program agenda for the following Tuesday, the Emory swimmers consistently emanate support for the Special Olympic athletes.
“[The Emory swimming and diving team] is a large group, so the numbers that come out and help Tuesday nights are unreal,” Fruge said. “A lot of us have been swimming for years and some of us our whole lives, so being able to combine a sport that’s so instrumental in our lives with this type of volunteer work really takes it to a higher level for us.”
In addition to the student athletes, Emory alumni who have been extensively involved with the program since their Emory days also regularly attend and coach the Special Olympics practices.
“I’ve swam my entire life, so doing something like this really helps me reconnect with the sport,” former program coordinator and alumna Carolyn Bonfield (16C) said. “I just want people to understand that it’s okay to be around people who are different from yourself and to try something you’ve never done before, because it may even become a passion, like it has for me.”
Head Coach Jon Howell is a primary team advocate for the Special Olympics program and volunteers at the pool Tuesday nights, as well.
“Athletes take away from this program a certain gratitude in which they are able to share their experience and love for the sport with somebody who has special needs,” Howell said. “They really get to know [the Special Olympic swimmers] and be apart of their lives, so I really think we make a difference in their lives overall.”
The Metro Ducks will compete at the Georgia Summer Special Olympic Games hosted at Emory May 19 to 21.