As Beaufort team prepares for Special Olympics, parents and swimmers already feel like winners

rdamgen@beaufortgazette.comMay 3, 2014 

  • TO JOIN


    The Carolina Hammerhead Sharks, a new Special Olympics swim team based in Beaufort, is accepting more team members, volunteers and sponsors. The team practices on weekends at the YMCA of Beaufort County. Details: Debra Marshall, carolina.hammerhead.sharks@gmail.com

As Kayla Garber propels herself toward the pool wall, her coach cheers her on.

"Kick! Kick hard! Kick! Kick! Kick! Keep going! You can do it!" George Marshall shouts in rhythm, his voice bouncing through the sticky air at the indoor pool at the YMCA of Beaufort County. Just behind Garber, Shawn Marshall, George's son, kicks too. They're given quick notes from two young volunteers about not bending their legs and keeping their toes pointed, which will give them more power.

In the next lane, Claudia Davis and Jason Deschamps are getting detailed instructions from coach Bethany Byrne about their form. "I want the water to be right above here," she says, gesturing to a spot on her forehead. Then she stands poolside and demonstrates a freestyle stroke, reaching as far forward as she can and rolling her upper body onto its side. "Do you see the difference," she says. Davis and Deschamps nod as they get in place to complete their last lap, hoping to improve their time and technique.

At the other end of the pool, Andrew Tempest, who just a few weeks ago didn't know how to swim, is working on his kick technique. He's wearing a life vest and has grabbed onto a paddle board; a volunteer encourages him to kick harder and faster. Sitting on the small set of bleachers nearby, his mom watches as the teen, who just weeks ago wouldn't let go of a death grip on her arm, grows stronger.

"This is definitely a bit of organized chaos," George Marshall said.

It's just the seventh practice for the Carolina Hammerhead Sharks, a Special Olympics swim team. The team has competed in one regional scrimmage in Charleston -- where the athletes surprised their coaches and themselves after every team member won at least one blue ribbon -- and is headed to the Summer Games May 9 and 10 at Fort Jackson in Columbia.

Just a few weeks ago, some of the athletes barely knew each other. Now, they encourage each other to do better, cheer for each other's successes and greet each other with arms open for a hug. They're growing stronger and more confident.

It's exactly what George and Debra Marshall hoped for when they started the team.

'BIGGER THAN I THOUGHT'

Debra and George Marshall previously lived in Spartanburg so that Shawn, who is now 18, could attend school at the S.C. School for the Deaf and Blind. It was in Spartanburg that they discovered the power of a swim team. Shawn, who has Down Syndrome and communicates through sign language, spent four years on a swim team. It was there he learned to swim, and it was there his family learned he had a competitive spirit.

"A lot of boys, they have a deep down gene for competition. We didn't even know it existed (in Shawn)," Debra Marshall said. "We got him in the water during a competition, and he just went like a firecracker. We were like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?' "

Just one meet was all it took for the Marshalls to go from worrying about Shawn to trusting that their son could accomplish something.

"He finished second. He kind of came into his body, and he could swim and overpower the water," George Marshall said. "Everything just kind of came together for him."

About two years ago, the Marshalls moved to Beaufort. They had wanted to live here for a while -- it had everything they were looking for in a hometown.

But there was no swim team for Shawn to join.

They tried to fill the gap with horseback therapy, but it lacked the competition and exercise swimming had.

"We waited a year and (a swim team) never happened," Debra said. "Finally we said, 'If it's going to happen, we have to do it.' "

So they did.

They've started the process to be certified coaches with the Special Olympics, which involves courses, safety training, and written and physical tests. They sent home fliers advertising the team with Shawn's classmates at Beaufort High School. They started to put notices up at businesses, churches, thrift stores, anywhere they could. They arranged with the YMCA to be able to use two lanes for an hour on Saturdays. With the team, they picked a name and a logo. When people started offering to help or give a donation, it occurred to the Marshalls that they would need sponsors, so they worked to make that happen, too.

"It's bigger than I thought it would be," Debra said. "The process is much more than I ever thought. There are T-shirts and sponsors, and we've got to rent a van (to get to competitions). Even the adults are thinking, 'What should we pack (for the state competition)?,' and if we don't know, we better make a list for the athletes. It's bigger than you would think."

It's been quite a bit of work, but for the Marshalls, the payoff has been worth it, ever since the first practice on March 8.

The athletes -- there are nine of them -- are all at varying physical and cognitive levels, so coaches and volunteers had to spend some time determining who could do what. And coaching isn't as simple as commanding the athletes to swim laps or do drills. The athletes learn a lot through peer modeling, George Marshall said. It can take a few practices to teach them something. Explanations or demonstrations have to be given. Steps have to be broken down. The same steps have to be taken each time the athletes begin a timed lap -- it's "1, 2, 3, start," not "Ready, set, go."

"One of the biggest things for me has been learning the way each swimmer needs instruction," coach Bethany Byrne said. "You're working with a group where each of them has a different ability to understand ... and then also physically, figure out what their limitations might be. One of the hard parts is communication ... so you learn to break everything down and learn to read their cues."

But it was easy to see something special was happening, Debra Marshall said.

"Before we got in the water, we asked them, we said, 'Guys, we're a team. What does that mean?' " Debra said. "And they said, 'That means no putdowns. That means we cheer each other on.' I've never heard them make a negative remark. They know more about being a team than a typical person out on the street."

'NO, MOM, I CAN DO IT NOW'

When the team participated in its first competition, a regional scrimmage in Charleston, that something special became even more clear.

Every athlete came home with at least one blue ribbon. The team also won second in a relay.

"It was like Shawn when he first started competing," George Marshall said. "For a lot of swimmers, this was the first time they ever competed in any sport in their life. We went in not expecting anything. All of a sudden, they all started winning. We went from being not sure they could swim 25 yards to, 'Oh! Look! She's in the lead!' "

The following Monday morning, a few students, proudly beaming, wore their ribbons to school; their teacher told the Marshalls they were "just on fire." Claudia Davis wore her two blue ribbons and one red ribbon, showing them to anyone she could as she bagged groceries at the Lady's Island Publix, where she's worked for 15 years. At their next practice, Byrne noticed they started asking for more advice and tips -- they wanted to get better.

In a picture taken after the scrimmage, Andrew Tempest held up one finger, proclaiming his team as the best. It's just one way he's grown more confident and proud, said his mom, Suzanne Briden-Canales.

Tempest, 15, has never had the chance to be on a team. He has developmental and physical delays. Seizures he had as a baby have caused him to struggle to use his left side -- he has to be reminded to use those muscles, Briden-Canales said. That meant sports like tee ball or soccer were out. He's a Boy Scout, and that's helped him grow as he "learns about life, both outdoors and indoors," she said. But with swimming, he's on a team.

Briden-Canales has noticed subtle changes in her son as he learns to swim. He looks to her to cheer him on, but he doesn't need her to be right next to him as often. Instead, he's doing more things for himself, and letting go of her arm. She's started getting out of the pool at practice and watching from the bleachers to encourage his independence.

"I can see (the difference) and feel it," she said. "He's saying, 'No, Mom, I can do it now,' but he still wants to make sure I'm nearby. It's good to see him interacting with the other athletes and not be so dependent on a caregiver or parent."

The Marshalls expected to see that growth in confidence; they witnessed it with Shawn when he was on the Spartanburg team. It's one of the big reasons they worked to create the team.

"That increased self-esteem is so important with special needs individuals because life can beat you down. It beats us down, but it's even harder for them because they don't succeed very often," Debra Marshall said. "Very often, they sit on the sidelines and see other people win and wish they could do it."

Davis has been given a boost by the team, too, said her mom, Mary Nelson. This is the 39-year-old's first experience on a team, and the smile on her face after their scrimmage was proof she's liking it, Nelson said.

"The swim team has made a big difference in her attitude and confidence," Nelson said. "Her attitude is 'Go Sharks!', and her confidence is stronger. It makes them feel like they can do anything."

Davis has been swimming since she was 3 -- she likes the backstroke best -- and is eagerly looking forward to the Summer Games May 9 and 10 in Columbia.

"It's fun, and I like it. I like being in competition and I want to be able to win and bring home the gold," she said.

It's a trip the team is all looking forward to, and not just for the competition. There's a dance for the athletes. They stay in barracks and eat in the chow hall.

"They really roll out the red carpet," George Marshall said. "The first time I took Shawn there, two guards came out on the street and stood at attention, holding back the traffic (for us)."

After that, the season ends. But the Carolina Hammerhead Sharks aren't done. Debra and George Marshall said they still plan on practicing regularly, perhaps once a month. Some of the athletes are eager to keep going.

"I want to still train even when it's over," said Jason Deschamps, 38, who added that part of the draw of the team is the health benefits he's seen from regularly swimming. "I want to keep going so I'm much better for next year."

Next season, the Marshalls plan to start weekly practices earlier than March. They hope to have a larger team, too, but as long as the athletes are enjoying the competition and having fun, they'll be pleased.

"I just love the team so much," Debra said. "They lift my spirits up. These athletes have been through a very hard life, and they are the most optimistic and positive people I've ever met. I feel like it's Christmas when I'm around them, they're just so happy."

Follow reporter Rachel Damgen at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.

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