HAMPSTEAD - Just before sunset, 13 swimmers in waist-deep water looked up at their coaches standing on the pool deck.
It was time for their post-practice huddle, where encouraging and motivating words are spoken, a cheery ending to an exhausting evening of workouts.
Coach Kathy Mayan reminded the swimmers Maryland's Special Olympics Summer Games were coming soon following Wednesday night's practice at the Carroll Aquatics Swim Club pool behind the Four Seasons Sports and Fitness Complex.
The athletes cheered.
Next weekend, 26 Special Olympics Carroll County swimmers will compete at the Summer Games, being held Friday through Sunday at Towson University.
More than 1,500 athletes, 400 coaches and 500 volunteers will participate. Special Olympics events include aquatics, track, bocce, cheerleading, softball and tennis.
Special Olympics are open to anyone with an intellectual or cognitive disability. Athletes must be at least 8 years old to compete. There is no upper age limit.
Special Olympics Carroll County prepares swimmers for all strokes, including freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. There are races for each at the Maryland Summer Games.
In the weeks leading up to the Summer Games, the athletes have practiced twice a week at the Carroll Aquatics Swim Club pool. They are coached by Stewart Wolf, the father of Special Olympian Swimmer Geoffrey.
During Wednesday night practices, the swimmers get extra instruction from Mayan and the Carroll Aquatics Swim Team high school athletes.
North Carroll High School junior Karly Hursey encouraged swimmers from the pool deck. Manchester Valley High School junior Allison Crim worked in the water with some of the athletes new to swimming. Both have volunteered for four years.
"They are awesome," Hursey said. "They inspire us."
The workouts are arduous. The swimmers frequently said they were tired. But they pushed on, switching between strokes and gliding across the pool in a quest to improve their times.
The team's longtime swimmers know the routine, by now. They arrive at practices ready to work hard.
"What's amazing is a lot of the athletes, this is the only time of year they swim," Wolf said. "They don't swim year-round, and it's like they come back every year and don't lose anything."
The swimmers have clearly benefited from their alliance with the Carroll Aquatics Swim Club, Wolf said. If they get distracted, the coaches are there to cheerily get them to focus on swimming laps.
When they reach goals, they are encouraged to swim faster or longer distances.
Several Carroll swimmers have turned in personal bests this spring.
"The partnership with our high school swimmers has been particularly rewarding," Mayan said. "The Special Olympics athletes feel like part of their team, and the high school athletes feel like a part of the Special Olympics team."
Swimmer Josh Smith, a South Carroll High graduate, has lost 49 pounds due to his frequent gym and swimming workouts. He is one of the team's vocal leaders.
During Wednesday night's post-practice huddle, he had some encouraging words for his fellow swimmers.
"Great job all season long," Smith said to his fellow swimmers. "It's our season. This is our time."