When Bucks swim coaches retire, will Special Olympics program sink?

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Lynn R. Wood, who has taught special education in Bristol Township schools for 44 years and has been the heart and soul of after-school Special Olympics swimming in Lower Bucks County for 30 of them, will retire in May.

Four of her longtime volunteer coaching colleagues, all in their 60s, plan to retire as well, leaving just six coaches for Bristol’s 60 special needs swimmers.

Unless replacements can be found by early autumn, the Bristol program will no longer meet safe supervision requirements, forcing it to downsize or close, said George Massimini, program supervisor for Bucks County Special Olympics.

“Special Olympics programs all have difficulty recruiting volunteers,” Massimini said, because new coaches must attend a training class, complete online courses in such essentials as protecting the athletes from physical, psychological and sexual abuse, work at least 10 hours under a certified coach’s supervision, and then commit to weekly three-hour pool sessions for the January through March aquatics season.

 The safety requirement of one coach or assistant for every four athletes creates a steady need for volunteers to supervise the 696 swimmers in the Pennsylvania suburbs and 46 in Philadelphia, said Jack Hasson, Field Director East, Special Olympics Pennsylvania.

In Bristol Township, the all-at-once departure of five veteran coaches makes that need urgent. Bucks has two other aquatics programs, but they are in the middle and upper parts of the county, a haul for the Bristol swimmers.

Blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, Wood, 65, looked like anything but a soon-to-be-retiree as she dashed around the Harry S. Truman High School pool in Levittown at a recent mini-meet, wearing purple sneakers that matched her purple Bucks County Special Olympics T-shirt, clipboard in hand, whistle at the ready, shouting, “On your mark, set, go!” to start each heat, then slapping wet high fives with the swimmers at the finish.

Wood began coaching after-school Special Olympics swimming in the 1980s because she loved her special education students and knew that swimming – whether independently or assisted by floaties, whether able to go 25 meters or 800 – built self-esteem, social skills, and poolside friendships.

So Wood has spent Wednesday nights in the pool with her swimmers for decades, and admits she will miss them terribly.

“They’re all younger than me, so I can call them kids,” Wood said. “Brittany started at 5 and she’s still in the program in her 30s. I’ve had the Griffith boys since they were five. They’re in their early 20s. All the kids bring a smile to your face when you get to the pool. I love them.

 “They give so much back to you,” she said, suddenly unable to speak. She paused for a moment. “When my husband passed away six years ago, Joelle came up to me and said, ‘Miss Lynn, if you ever need to talk, please call me.’ She hugged me. Joelle is just full of love. All the kids are. I know the end of my time here is coming soon. It’s emotional.”

The big emotion at Truman High pool, which Bristol Township has allowed Special Olympics swimmers to use free of charge for 40 years, was joy – emanating from swimmers’ smiles when they finished their races, echoing off the walls from cheering families in the gallery.

The celebration started when swimmers Bryce Dalton, a 10-year-old from Langhorne, and Brant Simiczak, 28, from Fairless Hills, opened the two-hour mini-meet by circling the pool deck, carrying a replica Olympic Torch, and it never let up.

“Miss Lynn knows how to push you but not to push you too hard,” said Simiczak, who swims at Special Olympics regional competitions. “She knows how to get the best out of you. I’ve become a whole lot stronger.”

Christine Arbuthnot and husband John, both retiring this year, began coaching with Wood when their son, Bart, was 14. He swam until he turned 40 last year.

“Bart has cerebral palsy,” his mother said. “His right side is fully involved so he can’t use his right hand, but his left hand is fully functional. His younger brother Jay, who was only seven at the time, decided he wanted to help Bart learn to swim on his back. So Jay swam at Bart’s feet and told Bart to splash him in the face.”

When Bart started using his left hand to splash Jay, he learned to propel himself through the water on his back.

The lesson was not lost on Arbuthnot. ”I coached one little girl who was scared to death to swim on her back,” she said. “I taught her by letting her lay on top of me like a baby turtle on a mama turtle. I would slowly let go of her and she would be OK. She wound up going to meets and swimming all by herself.”

After decades of “seeing a child go from being scared half to death about getting in the pool to not wanting to get out,” Arbuthnot said, “I would be very disappointed if the program falls apart.”

Sharon Griffith watched her seven-year-old son, Alexander Bannister, happily plowing through the water in his goggles and Batman trunks, while her daughter Jessica, 4, and her mother, Linda Griffith, cheered from the gallery.

Special Olympics swimming has socialized Alexander, who is autistic, to the point where “he’s stepping out of his shell to say, ‘Hi, Harrison. Hi, Billy. I’m glad to see you,'” his mother said. “I find that amazing because before he would stay to himself. So it breaks my heart that Lynn is retiring.”

Wood said she’s leaving with profoundly mixed emotions. “I’m still like, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ But it feels like the right time to start a different chapter. I’m not sure what that will be, but I know I will volunteer to do something. That’s just the nature of me.”

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