Moraga special-needs swim program a hit with all involved
By Lou Fancher
Never underestimate the transformative power or physical prowess of an East Bay Sea Serpent.
The athletes and coaches of the all-volunteer nonprofit organization founded in 2001 by Joleen Silverfoote are dedicated to fitness, social interaction and expert swim instruction for special-needs athletes in the Bay Area. Affiliated with and supported by Special Olympics Northern California, the program offers spring and fall seasons, a nearly 1-to-1 athlete-to-coach ratio, a polar plunge fundraiser for Special Olympics and occasional opportunities to participate in community events like the Orinda Moraga Pools Association’s annual championship swim meet held in August in Moraga.
Program director and head coach Brian Wentzel assumed leadership in 2010 and attributes this year’s boon numbers — 90 athletes, 92 volunteers — to word-of-mouth advertising. A reputation for excellent results and the Sea Serpents’ appearance at OMPA in 2011 add caché.
“Our OMPA relay has given us a lot of visibility and made a huge impact on the community,” he says. “People still come up to me and say it was the most exciting race ever.”
Athlete Andrea Halliday, 26, remembers the day as if it was yesterday. “I swam the freestyle leg. It was fun and competitive. When everyone is applauding for you, it’s enjoyable.”
The Concord resident and graduate of College Park High School has been a Sea Serpent for 18 years. When she is not attending swim practice at Campolindo High School’s Soda Aquatic Center, Halliday volunteers with Pleasant Hill-based White Pony Express and at the Concord Senior Center.
“I have intellectual disabilities,” she says when asked to describe herself. “I like freestyle best because I go faster. I do Sea Serpents because I want to be social and swim on a team. It keeps me positive, active. It feels good to coordinate my arms and legs. If you don’t use both arms equally and kick exactly, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
The learning, Halliday suggests, isn’t one-directional. Coaches include adults and student volunteers age 14 or older.
“The volunteers put a lot of efforts into helping train us. The high school kids learn from us because they’re in the water with us, cheering us on and helping with our strokes,” she says.
Baker Sharp, of Orinda, first heard about Sea Serpents from a friend. Having given up competitive swimming after realizing about six years ago that he no longer wanted to get up early for summer practice, he signed on to coach. The 17-year-old Miramonte High School senior says positive experiences as a camp counselor and an elementary school friendship with a boy in the autism spectrum inspired him to volunteer.
“Right away, I enjoyed talking to the athletes and seeing how they’d discuss a topic, change the subject. I used what I learned to motivate the athletes.”
Sharp discovered some athletes were excited to participate. Others, including one swimmer who asked constantly to get out of the water, he learned happily stayed in if given a new reason each time the request was made. The athlete Sharp has worked with most often learns primarily by imitation.
“It’s made me more aware of what I’m doing with my body and the things I’m saying,” says Sharp. “I wasn’t really good at coaching until Sea Serpents, where I saw how body language works, how the actions you take need to be broken down. I became more comfortable explaining things.”
It’s a skill Sharp will take with him when he chooses between UC Berkeley and Stanford University in the next few weeks.
“I’m studying computer science, but I hope with an educational focus included. Working with these athletes, empathy I’ve gained has been a huge part of my self-improvement. I’m happiest when I think I’m genuinely friends with a swimmer. That’s most important, our special, cool relationships.”
Wentzel says respect for people with disabilities is trending upwards. Halliday says people continue to underestimate her intelligence and capabilities — except on the Sea Serpent team. Certainly some student coaches participate in Sea Serpents to gain community service hours or to add to extracurricular activities on their college applications and initially may track a steep learning curve.
“But I see that less and less,” says Wentzel. “Most often, they hear from friends that it’s successful and fun. Quite a few go on to study special-needs education.”
He says is it is gratifying to watch accomplished swimmers have their stroke refined and swimmers who aren’t at first willing to get into the water swimming laps by the end of the season.
“What’s equally amazing is the development of high school coaches who are passionate about helping. They write college essays about Sea Serpents that are genuine: full of compassion, love for kids who are sometimes swept to the corners.”
Although not specifically looking to expand the program, Wentzel says a summer program that bridges the gap between spring and fall seasons would be a welcome addition