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Youngsters do laps in an overnight benefit for the Special Olympics aquatics program

Tristan Hinman, 12, usually races across the pool in Columbia Neighborhood Swim League meets. But Saturday, Tristan had all night to swim laps.

He and more than 50 Phelps Luck Snappers swam for pledges and donations to the Special Olympics aquatics program in an overnight Swim Mania at Phelps Luck pool. "I think it's a good idea because they should have a chance to swim, too," Tristan said.

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While every CNSL team holds a charity event, the Snappers have formed a bond with the Special Olympics athletes, who swim with the Snappers every year at Swim Mania.

"It's wonderful to have them included," said Barbara Evans of Clarksville, whose daughter Monica, 19, participates in the Special Olympics.

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CNSL supervisor Zulma Whiteford started the event nine years ago after her children, Brooks, the Phelps Luck head coach, and Brittany, a former Phelps Luck coach, volunteered with Special Olympics in middle school.

As an added incentive this year, 19-year-old Brittany created a theme with different distances for each age and level that equate to swimming "around the world." Markers along the way represented the different continents.

Coaches issued a "Snapper Challenge" to swim all the way around the world to earn a T-shirt or movie pass.

Zulma Whiteford said she will not know the final total of money raised until later this week, but she estimates that the Snappers have raised about $2,500 every year for Special Olympics Howard County, which provides sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities or closely related developmental disabilities.

The Special Olympics aquatics program uses the money to pay for training time at Howard Community College every Sunday from February to June, as well as team swimsuits.

"That's a big plus just because there are so many different expenses with raising a special-needs child," said Cara Gregg, whose son Justin, 20, swam enough laps to reach "South America."

For many people with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics offers an opportunity to train, travel to competitions and socialize through sponsored events and team parties. "Special Olympics has been the world to me," said Special Olympics coach and captain Nicholas F.W. Stewart, 30.

"We thank [all the swimmers] from the bottom of our hearts, and we thank Zulma," said Howard County Special Olympics Assistant Director Marilyn Miceli, who presented Whiteford with a plaque honoring her efforts.

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"We have a very special connection with the Phelps Luck Swim team," Miceli said. "A lot of our swimmers have improved because they feel they are a part of a team here as well."

The Phelps Luck Snappers also have learned from the Special Olympics athletes swimming beside them at Swim Mania.

"It gives them the opportunity to meet kids they might not normally," said Tristan Hinman's mother, Rachelle Woods. "Anytime the kids have a chance to reach beyond their immediate world, it raises their consciousness and just helps them to be more thoughtful about others.

"It also gives them some common ground because they're all here swimming," she added.

Not only do the swimmers learn to respect one another as athletes, they also have fun together.

Some kids threw around a football or played volleyball while it was still light, while younger kids visited the tie-dye station.

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Brooks, also a disc jockey, brought his equipment, creating a dance stage with flashing colors and music. He set up an 8-foot screen for late night movies and video games. "A favorite here is Guitar Hero," he said.

After about two hours, most swimmers had finished their laps.

Tristan finally emerged, dripping and cold. "I need something to eat," he said, looking toward the hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, fruit and snacks. Coffee and doughnuts appeared when the event ended at 6 a.m.

After the business of pledge-earning and lap-counting, the pool games started. Brooks, 20, and assistant coaches Adrian Gibbs, 19, and Matthew McKenna, 18, dumped keys into the pool.

"We are going to walk -- everyone say walk -- into the pool," Brooks said as the 8-and-under kids walked as quickly as possible to the baby pool to go after the keys -- only one of which opened a box that contained the grand prize. Cheers erupted when a key turned the lock to reveal a big bucket of sidewalk chalk. More cheers came when all of the other participants received pool toys.

"Midnight water polo is a classic," said Brooks, in addition to belly flop and diving contests for the older kids, who dive for keys in the full-size pool.

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The coaches also competed in a pie-eating contest.

Zulma Whiteford credited a team of volunteers, from lap-counters to team managers, for helping making the event a success.

"It's so much fun. [Swim Mania] is one event that everyone really looks forward to," said Gibbs.

The coaches know firsthand about the friendships formed poolside because all of them swam for Phelps Luck.

More than the money raised, the relationships formed at Swim Mania make the event meaningful, participants said.

"I think it's a great opportunity for them to actually see the people who they're helping," said Woods.

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Said Gibbs: "It would be great if we could get them this enthusiastic about swimming laps in practice."


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