St. Stephen seeking swimmers for Special Olympics team

A chance to compete at a national level awaits some Charlotte County swimmers.

Registrations have opened for the Town of St. Stephen's first Special Olympics team. The program, which offers opportunities to athletes with cognitive disabilities, is normally organized by volunteers or parents, but the town is taking on the team this year, said Aaron Muzzatti, aquatics and programming coordinator for the Garcelon Civic Center.

Weekly classes will begin Nov. 1, and participation from across Charlotte County is encouraged, he said. Plans are to expand the opportunity to Saint John and McAdam in the future.

Muzzatti said the Special Olympics is different from the Paralympics, which focuses on physical disabilities, because while Special Olympians may or may not have some physical disability, they face cognitive disabilities.

The Town of St. Stephen is working with Special Olympics New Brunswick, and Muzzatti said the national program allows swimmers to compete "once we have gone through our developmental period and they have been able to... build their skills to that point."

"There are obviously provincial games, but there is potential to eventually go to an international game," he added.

The initiative is an extension of a previously developed special-needs swimming program by the town, he said, noting the program was offered pre-COVID and "had a very positive response." The previous program was non-competitive and for swimmers between the ages of two and 18.

The new Special Olympics program will welcome swimmers above the age of 16 years to train for competitions. Classes will be once a week every Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., with the first class for participants being free of charge, Muzzatti said.

The word is being spread about the program across town through local organizations like the St. Croix Vocational Centre and the Little Acre Community Residence.

Jaclyn Craig, executive director of the St. Croix Vocational Centre, said that there has been "lots of talk about it at the centre," with many participants at the centre interested in going and trying out a session at the training centre.

"I think it's wonderful, I've always thought that, that was something our community was lacking in aspects of inclusiveness for adults with barriers," she said, "so I think that this is a fantastic opportunity to allow them to kind of explore new things."

Swimming is a recommended activity for adults with disabilities as it is "easy on the body" and helps them have physical activity "without hurting their joints," she said.

Craig said the program offered pre-pandemic saw "a high number" of participants, and she sent 22 posters home with the participants on Wednesday for the new competitive extension of the program.

Muzzatti said the town has been working on making arrangements for organizing the Special Olympics program since May in response to demand for activities for adults who surpassed the age of participating in its previous non-competitive swimming model.

He said the program already has one fully certified coach and one in training, with a third one going into training soon. Plans are for the town to apply for a grant to get more practice equipment for better training and coach training purposes.

In addition to the coaches getting certified, Muzzatti said arrangements have been made, such as dedicating an hour and a half at the lap pool for the Special Olympics program and closing down the therapy pool with nobody allowed to stand near the pool area unless accompanying a participant have been made to ensure that there are no distractions.

There is no deadline for registrations, Muzzatti said, adding that the program is not anticipating a huge number of participants at the beginning stage.

"It will take us a few years to build up and it will certainly take us a few years to seek swimmers at competition."

Rhythm Rathi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal