Olympian feats measured in smiles of accomplishment A Special Swimmer


Paul Day is just a few meters away from his second gold medal of the day in freestyle, and the crowd at the Towson State University pool is going nuts.

He heads toward the wall, his arms rising and falling with a discernible rhythm, keeping time to a metronome only Paul can hear. His legs kick, his mouth lunges for air. His parents, Larry and Louisa, shout their son's name, their hands cupped into megaphones. His friends in the stands -- and there are plenty of them -- urge him on. Officials start applauding even before the race is over.

Four pool lengths after he started, Paul touches the wall for the last time. He jumps out of the water, his arms raised in triumph. His parents, sitting in bleachers about 20 feet above the pool, jump even higher.

No one knows Paul's exact time, and no one thinks Paul is going to parlay his medal into some big-bucks endorsement for sneakers or breakfast cereal. None of that matters now -- just as it doesn't matter that he was the only competitor swimming, or that Paul is mentally handicapped, or that these are the Maryland Special Olympics, not the ones millions of people watch every four years.

What matters is that Paul did it.

"There's a great sense of achievement for him, because of his handicap," his proud father says. "This is one area where he's overcome that, and he is achieving something."

His race won, the 21-year-old Annapolis man is ushered across the hall to the awards ceremony, where he stands alone on the dais to get his medal. When he gets home, he'll add it to a coat rack in his bedroom already weighted down with scores of awards.

More are sure to come.

This weekend, Paul and 51 other Maryland athletes will be in New Haven, Conn., to compete in the Special Olympics world games. With 7,000 participants from 140 countries, it will be the world's largest sporting event this year.

A filmmaker looking to capture the spirit of the Special Olympics, an organization that gives thousands of handicapped children and adults a sense of accomplishment, would do well to follow Paul Day around for a day or two.

His feats are truly Olympian.

Fear and heartbreak Paul Day was 9 months old when he had his first seizure. Just before Christmas, as his mother was outside hanging decorations and his father was inside keeping an eye on him, his small body started thrashing about violently. Then he passed out.

"It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever been through," says his mother, Louisa Day, a media center aide at Old Mill Senior High School in Glen Burnie.

The Days took Paul to the hospital, where doctors ran a battery of tests. They couldn't find anything wrong.

But Paul's problems continued. He had more seizures, and often had trouble breathing. He stopped gaining weight. But the doctors still couldn't pinpoint the problem.

His parents didn't know what to think. They just kept hoping Paul would get better.

"Being mentally handicapped never entered my mind, really," Mrs. Day says. But at 3, Paul was still talking only gibberish. The Days took their son to the Kennedy-Krieger Institute in Baltimore for more tests.

The results were devastating. The doctors said Paul would never be like other children. He'd never read or write. He'd be dependent on his parents for the rest of his life.

"It was heartbreaking," says Mr. Day, an assistant principal at Chesapeake Middle School in Anne Arundel County. "It's not one of those things where you can say, 'OK, this is the way it is, so this is what we're going to do.' Because you've never gone through that before. This was our second child. I really don't know if this had been our first child whether we'd have had the second child or not."

To this day, they still don't know the root of their son's mental handicap, whether that first seizure was a symptom or a cause. For one out of every four mentally handicapped people, their doctor has told them, it's impossible to pin down a cause.

But they came to terms with their son's handicap long ago and point out that he's exceeded many of the doctors' predictions. He can sign his name and read well enough to get by.

"Show him a fast-food menu and you'll see how well he reads," his father says, smiling.

Paul doesn't talk much. He answers most questions with a simple yes or no. Actually, his favorite answer is "I don't know." Ask him what race he's swimming next and his immediate response is "I don't know."

"Sure you do," his mother shoots back.

Paul thinks for a second. "The 100 meters," he says.

He laughs a lot, almost always smiles, and his dark brown eyes reveal an insistent curiosity. "Are you married?" he asks a visitor out of the blue.

"I don't know where that came from," his mother says, shaking her head and smiling.

The Days are loath to take too much credit for their son's development. They suspect the doctors presented them with a worst-case scenario for Paul's future. And they say the county school system, which worked with their son from age 3 until he graduated from Central Special Education Center in Edgewater last month, deserves plenty of credit, too.

But clearly, Louisa and Larry Day have helped make Paul what he is today -- an outgoing young man who's held a job at Kmart two years, first busing tables, then working in the stock room. He rarely complains -- at least in public -- and has a close circle of friends, both handicapped and non-handicapped.

He likes to blow part of his paycheck on cassette tapes and has a notoriously eclectic taste in music, everything from John Philip Sousa to "The Lion King" soundtrack.

He'll never be able to live entirely on his own, but he functions a lot better than many handicapped people. And he works hard to achieve what many of us take for granted.

Mr. and Mrs. Day insist there was no great trick involved in raising Paul. They've simply refused to use his handicap as a crutch. There may be some things he can't do, but he won't know until he tries, they say.

"Don't assume that any handicapped kid can't do something simply because he is handicapped," Larry Day says. "Expose him to it, and if he can't do it, fine, but don't suppose he can't do it just because he's handicapped."

Paul's older sister, Rosa, says her parents were demanding with Paul -- sometimes too much so, she recalls thinking at the time. But now, she realizes the discipline and demands helped her brother.

"I can remember times where my parents would punish him, and I couldn't understand why," says Rosa, 24, who just spent a year as a teacher's aide for special education students at Severna Park Senior High School. "I guess because he was handicapped, I felt like he shouldn't be punished. Now that I look back on it, obviously if he did something wrong, he should be punished for it. My parents knew what they were doing. Today, Paul is very independent in what he can do."

Having a handicapped brother, she says, never seemed like that big a deal. It was, simply, "what I grew up with."

Her parents had much the same attitude.

"You have to accept it, so the question becomes, how are we going to make the best of it?" Mr. Day says. "You can't keep fighting it, because worrying about it and struggling with it is not going to change the fact that our son is handicapped. You do what is within your ability to do."

That includes finding something he's good at, something he enjoys, and encouraging him to stick with it. In Paul's case, it was swimming.

To the pool Keep your fingers together. Keep those fingertips pointing down. Don't stop when you make your turns.

For weeks, that's all Paul Day has heard from his coach. Don't look at me, keep swimming. What did I tell you to do with those hands? Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!

Paul swims at least five days a week, an hour or two each day, at the Olympic Swim Center in Annapolis. His training schedule would tire out almost anyone, but Paul's coach swears she's never heard him complain.

"Paul? Yeah, Steady Eddie," says Becky Perry, a tiny blond spark plug who has taught swimming at the Central Special Education Center for two years. "He just seems to be really even-keeled and just pleased with himself and happy almost all the time. I've never seen him disagreeable or have a moment of frustration, or even appear to not enjoy what he is doing."

Paul is her star pupil. By far, the fastest swimmer, and the most attentive, hanging on every word his coach says. His eyes rarely wander away from her, and when she encourages him to go faster, he tries to push it up another notch.

"He's very coachable," says Ms. Perry, 28. "He listens to what you say, you can tell that he's listening, and he really does try. He always catches on at some point."

Watching from the stands, purposely staying in the background to avoid distracting Paul, Louisa Day appreciates what this young woman has meant to her son. She knows Paul has become a better swimmer under Ms. Perry's watchful eye.

"Paul first went in a pool when he was 3 years old," his mother recalls. "It took like four years for the arms and legs to go together, but it was some exercise for him, it was a way to get with other people and he was learning something."

He turned out to be a good swimmer -- good enough to work out regularly with the Annapolis Swim Club. His technique is not picture perfect -- he splashes a bit more than he should, and he tends to pause at the end of every lap to scan the crowd.

But what he lacks in speed and technique, he makes up for in endurance; the guy hardly ever seems to tire in the water. And because many handicapped swimmers can't grasp the mechanics of swimming -- they may have trouble synchronizing their arms and legs, for instance, or forget to breathe regularly while in the water -- distance swimmers are a rare breed at the Special Olympics.

Tall and extremely thin, Paul hardly looks like a distance swimmer.

"You look at Paul and you see this long, lanky kid," Mrs. Day says. "But he's strong."

The Days began to suspect their son was something special after he won a silver and bronze medal at the Special Olympics world games in Minneapolis four years ago. To help him develop his talent as fully as possible, they persuaded the Annapolis Swim Club to let him train with them. And last year they got Becky Perry to start working with him one-on-one.

A native of New York State, Ms. Perry knew early on that she wanted to work with handicapped children. A cousin two years her senior suffers from Down syndrome, and watching her struggle to cope with that handicap had a lasting effect.

"All my years growing up, I just believed that individuals like Sharon deserve every opportunity in the world to be like everybody else," says Ms. Perry, who helps run a camp for handicapped children in Ohio every summer.

"Becky has been so good for Paul," says his mother, smiling as Ms. Perry's powerhouse voice reverberates through the swim center, her incessant shouts of "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" bouncing off the distant ceiling. "He likes to please people, which is why with her, Paul really gives it his all."

But for Ms. Perry, the pleasure is mutual.

"When you see a swimmer just get out of the water and be like hands up and smiling and really, really proud of himself . . . when you see that, it's just awesome, you realize you've accomplished something. Sure, swimming is great, and getting that technique down is really important, but there are a lot of other things that are just as important."

She shakes her head, strikes the air with her fist and beams. "I go home pumped every single day."

Badge of honor The Special Olympics can have a strange effect on spectators. first, it's easy to feel sorry for these athletes, many of whom are so handicapped they can barely walk, much less swim.

But watch a race, watch the competitors exult as they reach the finish line -- regardless of where they place -- and the pity is quickly replaced by joy.

These games do more than award people medals. More than 1,000 handicapped athletes, ages 8 and up, have come to Towson State for the Maryland games. Everyone will walk away with something -- a medal for those who place in the top three (and in the swimming events there are frequently only three athletes competing at a time), a badge if they don't.

For most, that's the end of the line, at least for this year. But for Paul, the state games are merely a tune-up for the big time -- the world games.

Paul, like the other athletes from Maryland, owes his presence in New Haven to the luck of the draw; competitors from Maryland were chosen from a hat.

It's a happy coincidence that he has a legitimate chance of returning home with a medal or two.

And if he doesn't win?

"I don't think it fazes him at all. He just loves to swim," says his sister. "He knows when he gets a medal, but I don't really think it means that much to him."

With the two gold medals already won, Paul goes for a third as the anchor of a 4-by-25-meter freestyle relay. And even though all the other three relay teams have finished by the time Paul jumps in the water, he still swims as fast as he can, still smiles as he climbs out of the pool, still looks around at all the people clapping for him and soaks in the adulation.

For Paul has done the best he can. He looks up and sees his parents cheering him. He looks around and sees his friends having a good time. He walks across to the medal ceremony and is treated like the athlete he is.

Win or lose, tomorrow, he'll be back in the pool. A champion.

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