North Kitsap swimmers clean up at Special Olympics

The Special Olympics swim team prepares for their season — March through June — with two-hour practices twice weekly at the North Kitsap Community Pool.  - File Photo
The Special Olympics swim team prepares for their season — March through June — with two-hour practices twice weekly at the North Kitsap Community Pool.
— image credit: File Photo

POULSBO — What began as a small, unstructured program some 25 years ago is now the thriving lifeline for 25 Special Olympic swimmers.

Judy Chase, a Special Olympics swim coach for more than 25 years, said when she first began working with the program there were only about 10 participants and it was never intended to be competitive.

In fact, the team didn’t even attend the state competition for at least seven years.

Multiple lives changed later, the North Kitsap Special Olympics Viking swim team has attended state for the last 15 years.

This year they attended in record setting numbers and style. Twenty-one swimmers made the trip to Federal Way May 29 through June 1, and captured six gold, 15 silver and 13 bronze medals and 31 ribbons.

“Every single person on our entire team got a silver or a gold,” said head coach Darla Sargent. She said 12 teams arrived at state and nowadays it’s competition beware when the NK Vikings show up. “We’re a team that competes and wins statewide. When they hear our names other teams go ‘Oh no, they’re here,’ because they know they’re going to get good competition from us.”

The Viking swimmers competed in events ranging from a 15-meter walk to the 100-meter butterfly.

Hillary Hope, 17, has been on the swim team for two years. This year she won three ribbons and a bronze medal for her performances in the 50-meter backstroke, the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and the 4x50-meter freestyle relay. This was the first time she’d gone to state and won a medal.

She had a blast.

“I enjoyed being with my friends,” she said. “When I won the award it was like, ‘Wow,’ and I felt like I’m doing better because at the beginning of the year I felt like I couldn’t do the 100 and I did it anyway.”

Another Viking swim member who also won his first ever state medal is Bob Depudy, 31. Depudy was a member of the Special Olympics swim team while he attended North Kitsap High School, but 2008 was his first year back since graduation.

He placed third in the 25-meter freestyle and silver in the 50-meter backstroke. When he was on the award podium he received a ribbon from a Seattle Seahawks player.

“It was a fun experience for me,” he said. “I got a ribbon from a Seahawk player, a real one. That was neat for me. I’m a big Seahawks fan.”

While Special Olympics is very competitive, it differs from other sports because it’s not all about winning, losing and outcomes.

Instead it’s about sportsmanship and overcoming significant physical adversities. And doing it all with a good attitude.

At state, Sargent observed swimmers sharing their medals with those who hadn’t won one yet, as they said, “Wear mine until you get yours.”

Back in the home pool the same friendly attitude is present.

Hope said swimming is very important to her because of her friends.

“We’re like a family. I have friends I can count on and they can help me out,” she said.

Swimming in and of itself also helps the athletes.

Since the teams inception both Sargent and Chase have noted health improvements, both mental and physical in the athletes: malfunctioning limbs are now able to do complex kicks, a surge in self confidence, sleeping better at night, and progressing from not even wanting to get in the water to swimming with their faces submerged.

Depudy has reaped the health perks of swimming.

“It makes me feel really good,” he said. “I have sore ankles and it makes them not feel so sore. It stretches them out. I seem like I am stronger.”

For now the swimmers’ season is over, but that doesn’t stop them from stroking a few laps. Sargent and Chase are hosting weekly swims in July. And most definitely Hope and Depudy will be there.

The members of the 2008 Special Olympics Viking state swim team are Jean-Marie Barnhill, Katie Burton, Alex Carion, Christan Castillo, Jacob Conklin, Lauren Councellor, Bob Depudy, Elizabeth Hancock, Tiffani Harris, Richard Heckley, Hillary Hope, Katie Jones, Tyler Kennedy, Robert Kondracki, Jessica Krebs, Gabe Maurer, Margaret (Peggy) Nelson, Ryan Nesbitt, James Schaffer, Chad Steyer-Morgan and Allison Wasekanes.

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