Pasadena Special Olympics group needs community support to extend its season
By Joe Piasecki 07/02/2009
Juan Silva couldn’t swim a year ago. But on June 14, the 13-year-old was kissing a gold medal he won in the 25-meter freestyle swimming competition, part of Special Olympics Southern California’s annual summer meet in Long Beach.
Silva is one of 11 local disabled teens and adults who train February through June with the Pasadena Aquaducks swim team at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center — a team whose season has now drawn to a close but is having a little trouble staying out of the water.
“They love the water. You can’t get them out of it,” said Jan Demont, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Pasadena, former competitive swimmer and one of four Aquaducks coaches. “Once they get that competitive spark — man, do they go!”
Demont and her group are hoping to keep that spark — and the social, physical and therapeutic benefits of the program — going for at least the rest of the summer. That would require payment of insurance for the athletes, coaches and whichever facility donates some time in its swimming pool.
“If we could have swimming for a whole year, that would be a miracle,” said Lucy Landeros, an Eagle Rock resident whose 29-year-old daughter Marcia and three other members of the Aquaducks’ girls relay team also won gold in Long Beach.
Landeros said her daughter used to also take part in other Special Olympics programs in the area, including power lifting, golf, tennis and gymnastics, but all of those activities have either been cut or are also in the off-season now.
“These kids can do so much,” she said. “We just have to have patience and keep working with them.”
Despite widely held notions that the Special Olympics, founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, mother of California First Lady Maria Shriver, is an extraordinarily well-funded program, it faces the same fiscal challenges as most nonprofits, said Jan Palchikoff, Southern California Chapter vice president for sports and field operations.
As part of an effort to streamline its operations over the past four years, the chapter announced earlier this year that it would be cutting some of its less-popular activities and dividing remaining events into spring and winter seasons.
Expensive and less-utilized winter sports, such as skiing, snowboarding and figure skating, were cut from the organization’s winter program, which continues to offer bowling, floor hockey, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball from August to December.
The February to June spring season discontinued power lifting and cycling, but will continue aquatics, track, basketball, bocce ball, golf and gymnastics. To save more money, its final meet in June was shortened from three to two days this year, but events were held involving some 1,100 athletes.
“We couldn’t go year-round with every single sport and be effective,” explained Palchikoff, “but we want to do the most for the greatest number of people we can.”
The Special Olympics Southern California Chapter provides some $2 million each year to host competitive events and ensure that participation in practices and meets remains free for disabled athletes, explained Kim Pine, assistant vice president for communications and marketing.
Based in Long Beach, the chapter covers 11 counties and provides funding for regional groups, which in turn oversee area groups such as the Aquaducks (managed by the San Gabriel Valley Region). If donors wish to direct help to one particular group, checks must be made out to that specific group.
The Aquaducks practice for one hour each Tuesday during the season, but Landeros said her daughter and others would clearly like to do even more, or at least continue through the rest of summer.
In the off-season, many athletes pursue other activities. Marcia Landeros’ swim teammate Lynn Higa, 38, is enrolled in YMCA and church dance programs, said father Min Higa, a Pasadena accountant and volunteer Special Olympics coach. Swimming “has really proved to be both physically and emotionally rewarding,” he said.
Higa, who has Down syndrome, Landeros, 15-year-old Jenna Ramirez and 18-year-old Marie Leos (whose father, Mark, also helps coach the Aquaducks) have formed close bonds through their training and competition.
“They’ve gotten really close,” said Demont, who served as a diving team alternate in the 1963 Pan-American Games and placed 16th in trials for the 1964 Olympics.
More than anything, it is the personal growth of these athletes that inspires Demont to volunteer.
“At first, Juan [Silva] would just sit in the water and not do anything. He wouldn’t even look at you. His mom told me at the meet that Juan has never really dressed himself, but now when she mentions swimming he runs and gets ready. He’s really grown up in one year,” said Demont.
“It just fills my heart to see them progress,” she continued. “I probably get more out of it than they do.”
For more information about the Aquaducks and to volunteer or donate, call (818) 421-8833.