At home in the water

James Heggen

Ben Schnable has come a long way.

Schnable was just one of 2,800 athletes who competed in Ames last week as part of the state Special Olympics. He took home one first place and two second place finishes in swimming Friday. It’s quite a feat when as recently as high school, Schnable couldn’t swim a full length of the pool and had to be in the outside lanes for safety reasons.

“This is the highlight of his year, he just loves it,” said his mother, Kathy, who volunteers with the swim team.

Ben has been swimming since high school, where he said he was drawn to the sport after taking swimming classes as part of his special education program. He said he enjoyed it because it was a place where he could be himself, and didn’t have to worry about grades or the stress of his other classes.

“I guess it was just so unique,” he said. “I didn’t have many classes that were not in the classroom.”

Ben enjoyed swimming so much, he decided he wanted to join the Ames High swim team, which was no small task.

Kathy said Ben has a “paragraph” of diagnoses, including mild cerebral palsy. This affects his motor skills, which makes some tasks, including swimming, more difficult.

But Ben was determined to make the team. He spent a lot of time working with his teachers to improve his swimming ability, and his sophomore year, Ben made the team.

Kathy said she was very proud of Ben’s accomplishment — he is the only one in his family to have lettered in a sport. She said, as a parent, sometimes you get nervous if you’re not sure if your child can do something, because you want him or her to succeed, but also don’t want your child to have hurt feelings if it doesn’t work out.

“He did it, he amazed me, he was determined,” she said. “I was very proud of him because he didn’t give up.”

Ben said it was great to be on the team, and it boosted his self-confidence. He also said he enjoyed the social aspect of being on the team.

Ben graduated in 2008 from high school, but decided to continue swimming through Active Lifestyles, a sports program for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities through the Arc of Story County.

He joined the team in February of 2009, which has allowed Ben to continue his swimming career, but also has filled a social void left after he graduated, Kathy said. She said he had been kind of lonely after losing contact with his fellow classmates, some of which he knew as far back as kindergarten.

Ben will be back next year, and Kathy, along with Patty Gibler — who also volunteers for the team — will be taking over the coaching position from Eileen Thompson. Thompson is retiring after five years with the team.