My Love/Hate Relationship With Swim Team

Those of you who’ve been reading for awhile likely noticed that blog posts about swim team are conspicuously absent this summer. Gone are the days when I celebrated every tiny achievement and wrote ad nauseum about the trials and triumphs of having a daughter with cerebral palsy who swims competitively (“competitive” being understood to mean “in a competition”).

Sarah Kate did swim again this summer, and has improved a great deal over last year. Her 25 yard backstroke time has more or less hit a plateau, but she swam the 25 yard breaststroke for the first time and moved up to the 50 yard freestyle this season. She even dropped her 50 free time by a lot – at the intrasquad in June, she swam it in 2:11; at the year end area meet last weekend, her time was 1:46.

It’s okay not to have the champion swimmer – we have a few of those on our team, which has won the area championship eight years out of the last eleven (including the last four in a row), and everyone finishes behind them sometimes, if not always – and I’m proud of what Sarah Kate has accomplished these past three seasons.

But just once, I’d like her to beat someone other than herself.

Each time she lines up to swim, I’m nearby, ready with my camera and my high school cheerleading voice, resurrected for the express purpose of cheering her on. Cheering parents are the norm, of course, but because of Sarah Kate’s lack of speed, I’m always the last one yelling, and I often hear the echo of my impotent voice long after the next-to-slowest swimmer is finished.

And I hate it.

I hate that I am consumed at each meet with her doing just a little bit better, even though I know she’ll finish last no matter what. I hate the sound of my voice – loud, obnoxious, and eerily similar to uber-competitive sports parents that I despise. I hate that when I hear myself yelling, I’m wondering at the same time if the opposing team’s parents think I’m crazy – pushing my obviously slow swimmer who’ll never achieve what it appears to them I want.

When the heat ends, I hate wondering if those same parents notice Sarah Kate’s disability and feel sorry for her, if they feel sorry for me that I have a disabled child, or if they pity Sarah Kate for having to deal with an obviously deranged mother. And most of all, I hate it when Sarah Kate asks me, as I help her out of the pool, what place she got.

When she started swim team, she stood out because of how slow she was. As she improved, she was still slow, but much closer to the other swimmers than before. This year, with the addition of the 50 free to her repertoire, the difference in speed was conspicuous again. Last Friday when we arrived at the meet, we learned she would be swimming the second leg of a 200 yard freestyle relay. At the halfway point for Sarah Kate’s team, when she was done, the other five teams were already at or very near the finish. It took them over four minutes to swim their heat – the other teams’ times all started with a two.

It was her first event, and I was already miserable.

I know what you’re thinking. Swim team is about Sarah Kate, not me. Many kids with disabilities never participate in sports with their abled-bodied peers. Swimming is a benefit to her no matter where she finishes. She’s an inspiration to her team just for being out there.

And there’s the rub.

Her first year of swim team, I think she was an inspiration to her teammates. The past two years, though – and especially this year – I think she’s just another kid to most of them (but not all). It’s exactly what I’ve always wanted for her – to be fully included without qualifiers. It’s a good thing.

But having her be included doesn’t make ME any less of an oddball. In Bizarro World, sports can’t be just a diversion that my child does as a way to find out what she’s good at or to burn off excess energy – she’ll never be good at any of it, and I know that. When she jumps into the pool (or steps up to the plate), she’s there to have a good time with her friends, but I’ve brought her there to supplement her physical therapy.

No matter what she achieves, I’m always going to be The Mom of The Girl That Walks Funny.


  1. says

    Andi, I can’t believe you’re the only parent cheering on Sarah Kate. That seems so weird to me. As a slower runner, I’m often near the end of races, but I always then try to cheer on the people finishing behind me. I guess it’s different because I’m not racing against the other people. But I find it especially important to cheer on those last finishers. They’re out there doing it and they might be last but they didn’t give up and they keep showing up the the start line. That says a lot and we can all learn a lot from them.

    I would love for SK to not be last, so I understand that, but I think that on some level, she should still be an inspiration to the other kids AND the parents because she keeps showing up. It’s not always about winning. That’s something we could all learn from. If I knew there was a solid chance I would regularly come in last at a running race, I’m not sure I could show up. I’d probably just quit. So SK’s decision to keep coming back is inspirational.

    • Andi says

      I think you have to consider how swim meets are structured – although it’s a race, it’s not like races that you or I run. There may be anywhere from 45 to 100+ individual events, and each of those events may have multiple heats. It’s not that people are choosing not to cheer – they just aren’t noticing her out there all by herself, because only the folks who have an interest in that particular heat are paying attention.

      And…in defense of the other parents, I’m probably not truly the ONLY one cheering. Mr. Andi is usually parked at the finish end of the lane, while I stand on the side closest to her lane, and I’m sure he’s cheering, but I can never really hear him. It’s not that there is silence – more like a noticeable decrease in volume that makes my voice sound that much louder to me. And she does have two other cheerleaders – older girls who’ve taken a shine to her. Unfortunately, they swam in the afternoon (SK in the morning) so weren’t there for the last meet.

  2. says

    Wow. There’s so much in here, Andi, and I’m not even sure I can begin to touch on everything you’ve brought to this post. I know if I were there you certainly wouldn’t be the only mom cheering her on. That makes me mad.

    I do think it says a LOT about the coach of the swim team that he put SK on the relay team. I know it sucks to feel like your kid is the one being, well, for lack of a better word, used to teach the “typical” kids about the true meaning of sport and teamwork. But the inspiration SK is offering her teammates and their families will go far beyond the pool. But I hear you – just once you want it to be about swimming and not being the poster child.

    It’s a tough situation, and you likely feel it much more than she does, at least for now. It breaks my heart that you feel this way, not because I don’t think you should, but because I think you all deserve a break from being “that family.” When your family is a minority somehow, especially one that people try and keep out of “mainstream” events, there’s this need to present the perfect picture and show everyone how great it is. And it’s exhausting. Sometimes you just want to be real and say this stuff is HARD and sometimes it’s awful and sometimes I just want to give it to someone else for the day.

    I know we only know each other through blog and facebook, but know that you’ve got a family in CA that’s cheering all of you on, and who care about you all very much. <3

    • Andi says

      You described exactly how I feel – it’s exhausting to be, as you said, That Family all the time. I suspect you get it because you are That Family (just in a different way).

  3. Bill McCarthy says

    Hi Andi
    If I am reading this right, you have your daughter competing with typical swimmers and always finishing last? Have you ever considered Special Olympics? My son, Brennan, who has Downs Syndrome, competes in Special Olympics with kids having many types of disabilities. He has won many gold medals and is a great swimmer – but he could not possibly compete with typical kids. Special Olympics has a huge added benefit for kids – this is a place where they can make new friends, and this will be more important as years go by. If you have not already done so, I recommend that you consider Special Olympics – it is a terrific organization and the kids have a wonderful time – just a thought.

    • Andi says

      Yes, Bill, you did read that right. She swims with typical swimmers and plays softball with typical players – both by her own choice. She has done special needs soccer, as well, but she prefers softball and swimming because she knows the kids – they are her peers in school and at church. She doesn’t seem to mind finishing last in swimming, and is a good enough hitter in softball at this point that she actually achieves more than some of her able-bodied peers (she doesn’t score a lot of runs, but she gets a lot of RBIs, and some of the girls can’t hit the ball at all).

      There is a Special Olympics swim team in our area, but it’s about 45 minutes away, so it’s not as easy to manage as local league sports. She also doesn’t have an intellectual disability – she’s in the gifted program, actually – so her options in terms of competition within the SO program are limited. Paralympics would be more suited to her, but as far as I know there isn’t a Paralympic program for kids.

      • says

        I was going to post this further down, but I will post it here.

        SK does not qualify for Special Olympics. She would be in para-sport. It is very different. As you know Andi but maybe your other readers don’t, intellectual disabilities do not qualify participants for the Paralympics – one of the reasons the Special Olympics movement started. Physical impairment and competing on a level playing field is the aim of the para-sport movement. SK would be a paraswimmer.

        I know from my own experience in paratriathlon it is amazing to finally feel competitive at something. Those of us with neuromuscular disorders (be it CP or stroke damage or a disease) often are just left in with the “regular” crowd and eventually it is demotivating. But the para crowd is a place where we can feel equal – where we can WIN.

        Check out the organisations in Alabama, maybe they do a camp. Link SK in with the organisations now. Check out the national standard times. Maybe you are the mom cheering for the slowest girl in the regular kids meet – who is actually the next paralympic gold medal winner…

        • Andi says

          Thanks for clarifying, Donna! Not everyone understands the difference, and it’s sometimes compounded by the fact that local SO programs often welcome any child with a disability (our SO swim does that). Unfortunately, the closest Paralympics-affiliated program to us is about a 4-hour drive. :( However, they may have summer programs she could join later.

          • says

            Hi Andi,

            I was lucky enough last night to have dinner with one of the US Olympic Committee members in town for the Paralympics. I asked him how Paraswimming works. He explained to me that para-swimming is fully integrated with USA Swimming (just like paratriathlon is with USA Triathlon). He also told me that swimmers with CP are under-represented in USA Swimming. He suggested to get in touch with your local USA Swimming programme, and said to ask about swim camps for para-athletes.

            I thought I’d pass this along, as I didn’t know. He explained that although SO offers outreach SK could benefit from USSA development programmes.

            Just keep swimming – as Nemo and Dory say!


          • Andi says

            Thanks, Donna! Although Sarah Kate is diplegic, not hemiplegic, her right leg is more affected than her left so though her kick is “legal” on the left, it isn’t on the right. In the last meet of the summer this season, she was allowed to swim the breaststroke with an accommodation for her kick – I wasn’t aware that they had any such accommodations in the rule books, but her coach volunteered the info to me. I’ll check into it further and see what we can find out.

            Interesting that he would say that swimmers with CP are underrepresented. Anecdotally, that’s true in our area. We’ve seen multiple area swimmers with Down syndrome and some other disabilities, but no one else with CP.

        • says

          I have CP as well and do not have a intellcuall disabltiy yet I have been an athlete in Special Olympics for seven years now My advice is talk to the local program. Maybe they will let her in

          ps I was in AP US History and i am one of the smart kids among my peers

  4. says

    gosh! i don’t know about her never being “good.” i think she is good! she’s out there swimming, competing and IMPROVING. every time she races she believes in herself enough to ask you what place she finished in. i used to swim in grade school and decided on a whim to try out for the team when i was a senior in high school. your daughter would have kicked my butt! i was terrible! swimming is the hardest sport out there (and if someone disagrees, i challenge you to get in the pool and race) and sarah kate is tearing it up. :) your daughter blows me away with her self confidence. she is going to do big BIG things and she will never be last in life. ever. keep cheering her on.

  5. Carol E says

    Andi – I love it that she is swimming and likes it. What about the other swimmers? My daughter swam and the other girls cheered on all the swimmers (slow to fast, and some of the slow girls would be swimming when everyone else was finished) until each one was finished. That was one of my favorite parts of the meets.

  6. Amy says

    I love your posts about Sarah Kate’s accomplishments in both swimming and softball. She is such an inspiration! My 2 year old daughter also has spastic diplegia and your blog gives me so much hope for my little girls future.

  7. Dawn says

    No, sweet friend. You are The Mom of The Girl That Knows No Limits.

    And, as someone who has cheered beside you, you are also The Mom Who Cheers Really Loudly. :)
    I have video evidence from last years’ Jr. Champs. Shall I share it?

  8. Dawn says

    Also, may I add that at least you arent the mom of the kid that cries on the field because they didn’t get enough balls hit to them or the mom of the kid that throws her bat if she doesn’t hit well, or the mom of the kid who is a stud athlete but no one likes to be around or coach because they are poor sports.

    I saw a great Nike cOmmercial last night about greatness. Look it up. You will love it

  9. Dawn says

    And, since I am on a roll this morning, the back of the pack is where the best stories come from. The back of the pack inspires more people than the winner. Take the Iron Man for instance. Nobody really watches that to see who wins. They watch to see the regular folks. The ones who aren’t Adonis and who nature didn’t give an athletic advantage to. The cancer survivors, the wounded warriors, the people who are on the course for hours upon hours from light til midnight and STILL FINISH are the ones that make me want to get up and go. They are the heart and soul of the event. They aren’t there to WIN or even place. They are there TO DO. Sarah Kate is the definition of athlete and competitor. She does it because she loves it.

  10. Keri says

    I appreciate your honesty Andi! And, just know, that there are a lot of people cheering on SK than who are at the swim meets. Just think about us next time you’re cheering.

  11. says

    I hate competative sports of every sort with a passion…just slightly less than I hate people telling me that Im a bad parent for hating competative sports. I hate all that just slightly less than having my sports oriented husband tell me I failed parenting by not doing all this when he didnt bother to lift a finger in this area either. FTR, I never said I was going to be a “sports mom”. (rant over)

    I was cajoled into going to one swim meet by a parent who told me how “fun” it was. I hated every millisecond of it.

    That said, I think you are the best mom ever for parenting so well. If you ever feel bad for your attitude, think of me and know that you are succeeding big. You are my hero.

  12. says

    I admire Sarah Kate for trying. It takes courage to try, to get right in there. I have cerebral palsy and because I was more of a bookworm than an athlete and didn’t like to have difficulty in front of other people. You aren’t cheering because you are ultra-competitive, you are cheering because you are so proud of her for going out there and living! I think Sarah Kate is amazing, and you are too.

    • Andi says

      HA! I’m a bookworm who doesn’t like to have difficulty in front of other people, too, Melissa. And I don’t have CP. 😉

      Thanks for your encouragement!