By Christie McNeal/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – While helping with the Tupelo Public School District’s Safe Splash program, Leigh Ann Mattox realized special-needs kids could enjoy the waves as well.
Mattox is in charge of Therapeutic Challenger Sports with Tupelo’s Parks and Recreation Department. Two years ago, the challenger league for “individuals with mental and physical challenges” offered softball, basketball and soccer.
To add swimming to that mix, Mattox talked to Barbara Aguirre, a coach for the recreation department’s swim team, Shockwave. They held a meeting and tested the skills of those interested in the water. Many had never even been in a pool, but Aguirre still agreed to help.
“She’s just stuck with me,” Mattox said.
In just that first year, each member of the Challengers swim team brought home two medals from the Special Olympic Mississippi State Summer Games in Biloxi. They competed in 25 meter events and developmental events, which are for members who can’t do strokes.
Each member received a bag and suit in the team’s colors – royal blue and black.
“We were the sharpest-dressed team down there. That makes you feel like you belong – to wear team colors – they love that,” Mattox said.
Now in the second year, the group recently added three more swimmers, bringing the team to 11 strong. They hope to compete in more events at this year’s games, which will be May 18-19 on Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi.
According to Mattox, there are about 3,000 athletes who compete in different events from around the state.
While on base, each athlete is assigned two airmen who stay with them throughout the events.
“We don’t worry about them,” Mattox said. “They are taken care of. Their staff is incredible.”
The opening ceremony is held on Friday night, and Mattox said it is just like at the Olympics – the athletes all march in. Competition starts on Saturday and finishes up mid-afternoon. There is an Olympic Village set up with games, and there is a closing ceremony. On Saturday night, a dance is held.
“They love dances,” Mattox said.
Karen Nissen, whose son Logan, 14, is on the team for the second year, said the Special Olympics is hard to describe without seeing for yourself.
“It was just a great experience for everyone,” she said.
Nissen said her son, who is nonverbal but uses sign language, received two silver medals in the developmental events last year. She said he loves the water, and she loves how healthy it is for him to be on the team.
“It’s the best thing we ever did,” she said, and she hopes the program will continue to expand.
Nissen said she is amazed by how much Logan and the other team members have grown through this program.
“They are a team,” she said. “They are proud of themselves, and we are proud of them. It’s unbelievable.”
How to help
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HELP with the swim team, call the Tupelo’s Parks and Recreation Department at (662) 841-6440.