Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Some Local Yumminess!

John Gillooly: Cranston East swimmer has been an inspiration to all

01:00 AM EST on Sunday, February 13, 2011

CRANSTON — Around the country, there are teenagers who have garnered headlines for bullying other students who may be a little different from them.

But this is the story of Haley Howard and her teammates on the Cranston East girls swim team — the story of teenagers who have spent the winter celebrating the uniqueness of one of their peers, rather than ridiculing it.

Howard is a 14-year-old freshman with Down syndrome. She may not have scored any points for the Thunderbolts during the recently completed Interscholastic League swim season, but she definitely was an asset to her team.

“While other races are going on, some people would be just sitting down and talking,” said junior Erin Torres. “But when Haley was swimming, everybody on the team was standing on the side of the pool cheering.”

“She never won races, but she always was so happy,” said Kristen Bachand, another junior teammate. “We would see her out there trying her hardest and not winning, and it taught us — even if we don’t win — keep working at it. It taught us we should be happy that we are able to do this.”

It started back in November, when Susan Howard, Haley’s mother, inquired about the possibility of her daughter being a member of the high school swim team.

“When we first asked, it was mainly about socialization,” said Susan Howard. “Haley is an only child, so she is very accustomed to being around adults. But we wanted her to have a chance to be around her peers outside the actual school setting.”

Howard and her husband, Ken, also feel that every teenager needs to learn how to function outside their comfort zone. They need to experience the thrill of accomplishing something they didn’t think they could do.

“She always liked being in the water,” Susan Howard said. “She has been swimming with a Special Olympics team since she was 8 years old. The Make-A-Wish Foundation gave us an above-ground pool for our backyard four years ago. We knew this would be different, but I didn’t know anything about high school swimming.”

When Cranston athletic director Mike Traficante asked veteran Cranston East swim coach Bob Bouchard if he thought a teenager with Down syndrome could be a member of his team, Bouchard had only one reservation.

“I had known Haley from the swim classes when she was a student at Park View [Middle School], so I wasn’t worried about the swimming in the pool. It was just the safety aspect out of the pool,” said Bouchard, who is a physical-education teacher at the middle school, where the Cranston East swim team practices and holds its meets. So Traficante asked Lori Stromberg, Howard’s one-one-one special-education aide during the school day, if she would be willing to add about three hours to her work day, five days a week, so that Howard could practice with her teammates from 3 to 5 p.m.

Stromberg agreed.

“We started her slow in the small pool working on a few things with me and some of the girls,” said Bouchard. “But after a few weeks I said to Haley, ‘If you are going to be on this team, you have to get in the big pool with everybody else.’ She was a little uncomfortable with it at first. The small pool was her comfort zone and she was happy in her comfort zone. But once she started swimming with everybody else she started asking questions like, ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ ”

“Her strokes have improved 100 percent since she started,” Bouchard said. “That’s the thing. It wasn’t just me working with her. I think once she started swimming in the big pool with everybody else, it was more her watching the other girls and following their example.”

Which is exactly what her parents had hoped would happen.

“We didn’t want her to be the model. We wanted her modeling herself after good teenagers who really care,” said Susan Howard.

And yet Howard has become a role model.

“Her enthusiasm made us happy,” Jillian Proulx, another junior teammate. “She always tries so hard. It’s like she has become our role model.”

Howard swims the 50-yard freestyle, the shortest of four individual freestyle events. Howard’s first recorded time, in December, was 59 seconds.

Since then, it has been a winter of steady progress for Howard.

“When she first came here she had a little flip turn, but she has watched and worked with the girls and now she has a real nice flip,” said Bouchard. “Now she also only picks her head up a couple of times going down and a couple of times coming back.”

This season she started her races already in the water rather than diving off a starting block when the starting horn was sounded. That’s legal under freestyle rules, but it costs a swimmer valuable time.

“The girls worked with her and now she actually can dive, but she wasn’t quite ready to do it in a meet. But next year she will be diving,” said Bouchard.

Under Interscholastic League dual-meet swim rules, only two swimmers from each team can be designated potential point scorers in each individual event. But most pools in Rhode Island have at least five lanes, and some as many as eight.

So the extra lanes are used for swimmers who are trying to work their way into the starting lineup swimming as nonscorers, but recording official times.

That’s was Howard’s role this season.

“We treat her like everybody else, so she can’t just jump into one of the scoring positions ahead of the other kids who are working to be in those spots,” said Bouchard. “There are no concessions. She has to earn those spots and, believe it or not, she understands that. The goal is that some day she will earn one of those scoring spots.”

In her final race of the season last week, she posted a time of 42.5 seconds, nearly 17 seconds better than her first recorded time in December.

“It’s amazing she improved that much,” said Bouchard. “Every meet she was faster. The last meet she took 2.4 seconds off her previous best time. She doesn’t really care about her time; she’s just happy she’s swimming. We care more about her time than she does.”


Tina said...

What a wonderful story, I always love to read about things are children are accomplishing and capable of, what was so much more wonderful to read was how the others look at her like one of them. Thats what we all dream of for our children.

Helle said...

Inspirational! Such a feelgood story, and I also agree that it's healthy to step out of the "comfort zone" once in a while... for all of us! :)

Scrappy quilter said...

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it with all of us. Hugs

The VW's said...

Love this!!!

Robin E. said...

Lovely story! Thanks.