Towson U. swimmers coach Special Olympians

Clinic is one of five in series at Towson U. this fall

Anne Beck has been a passionate swimmer since age 3. She's so comfortable in a pool her father calls her a "water rat." She swims in two qualifying meets and the Maryland state tournament every year.

But there's room for improvement even for the best, and the Lauraville resident just got a taste of the kind of coaching she has rarely experienced.

Beck, 17, was one of 30 Special Olympians in the pool at Towson University Sunday morning for a clinic in which the school's 60 varsity swimmers gave them individual instruction and encouragement galore.

It was the third of five such clinics the program has offered this fall under the guidance of head swim coach Pat Mead, each dedicated to a particular stroke.

The first two, held in October, focused on freestyle and the backstroke; Sunday's honed in on Beck's favorite, the breaststroke.

"She's very flexible — a natural breaststroker," said junior Hannah Snyder, a captain of the women's team and one of Beck's two coaches Sunday. "We're working on her kick, which is a little wide. We're trying to get it tighter and more efficient."

Beck, who has Down syndrome, leaned back on a pool noodle in a lane nearby, laughing along with her second coach, freshman Sydney Sorenson, while undulating her legs in a warmup exercise.

"It's so rewarding to be able to help people with the mechanics of their strokes," Sorenson said.

Towson and its athletic teams have been supporters of Special Olympics Maryland, which organizes athletic training and competition for the state's developmentally disabled individuals who are 8 years old and up. The university has long played host to the organization's summer games.

Mead, in his 17th year as coach, and his wife, Maureen, the university's diving coach, got to know the program over the past 12 years as Towson hosted Special Olympics Maryland's aquatics competitions.

Towson University athletes are required to work community service into their schedules, and Mead said his swimmers have done fundraising events to raise money for various causes.

But he wanted to establish a program in which his young men and women developed coach-student relationships with the Special Olympians over a longer period.

When he first pitched the idea, he said, he got 23 emails from Special Olympic athletes within hours, and there's still more interest than he was able to accommodate this first year.

The ratio of two coaches per swimmer all but bowled over the athletes' parents.

"A ratio of 2-1, coaches to swimmers, is unheard-of," said Kevin Baynes, whose daughter Abbey was splashing in the lane beside her. "It's usually five coaches per one swimmer. It's an exceptional commitment on the part of these [Towson] kids."

Beck's father, Kevin O'Reilly, agreed.

"This is awesome — all these young [varsity swimmers] getting up for a 10 a.m. clinic on a Sunday. Who knows where they were last night, and until how late?" he said, laughing.

In point of fact, they were in this pool at least until 5 p.m. Saturday, competing in a meet of their own that began at 7 a.m.

If any had a problem with that, it wasn't in evidence at the pool, which was filled with laughter and upbeat chatter as the coaches worked with their charges, athletes from their teens through their 30s.

When he first told the students about the program, Mead said, a few sounded uncertain about how to approach developmentally disabled athletes, but it only took the first session to open them up.

"Our kids have really taken to this. They've learned compassion, humility and an appreciation for what they've got, but they've also realized that people with special needs are much more capable than they probably understood," the head coach added.

They'll get a chance to see how capable in January, when the Special Olympians will attend two of Towson's home meets, cheering the Tigers on at poolside and putting on a swimming exhibition of their own.

Snyder and Sorenson enjoyed their time with Beck, a cheerful young woman who tried several new techniques — when she wasn't stopping to throw her arms around her friend Abbey.

As the session ended, Beck strode past where her father sat in the grandstand, flashed a big smile in his direction, and headed with her coaches toward the locker room.

O'Reilly gave her a thumbs-up and grinned.

"She loves these clinics," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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