By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – For several years, Leigh Ann Mattox has helped special-needs children and adults compete in athletic events.
This year, she decided to take a team to the state championships.
Mattox, recreation director with Tupelo Parks and Recreation, recently organized a Tupelo swim team that will compete at the Special Olympics in Biloxi in mid-May.
The nine-member group has been practicing twice a week, including an 8 a.m. spring break workout Wednesday.
“A lot of them compete hard in other sports, but since we have added swimming, they have taken it up another level,” she said. “They understand what we’re doing and that they’re going to be able to compete.”
The new swim team has been particularly welcomed by Taylor Rosenthal and JJ Reed, who have both played multiple sports, including basketball and baseball, with the Tupelo Therapeutic Recreation Association, a division of Tupelo Parks and Recreation.
Both have been eager for a swim team that would accommodate their special needs.
“I enjoy it a lot,” said Reed, 29. “I was really excited.”
Rosenthal, 16, said he really enjoys diving, while Reed has the most fun doing the backstroke.
More than 13,500 children and adults with intellectual disabilities participate in Special Olympics Mississippi programs, according to the organization’s website. The annual summer games will be May 13-15 at Keesler Air Force Base.
Both Reed and Rosenthal have competed in the Special Olympics in other sports, but this will be their first time on a team representing Tupelo.
JJ Reed’s mother, Susan Reed, said the competition is a big self-esteem boost for her son. Athletes stay on the base and are assisted by the Air Force members during the competition.
“It gives him a chance to be away and have a sense of independence,” she said. “It is wonderful for kids to have that opportunity and to know they can do it.”
The Tupelo group currently is seeking individual and corporate sponsors for the swim team. Their support will fund travel to the meet, meals and team gear.
The swimming competitions at the games accommodate athletes of varying ability levels: there are individual events as well as competitions with floatation aids and pool walks.
Helping prepare Tupelo’s new team for the games is Shockwave assistant coach Barbara Aguirre. She’s worked with the more advanced swimmers on their strokes, as well as their breathing and diving.
“They are all so appreciative to be given this opportunity,” she said.
Bill Rosenthal, Taylor’s father, said he and the other parents especially appreciate Mattox for the work she does.
“You want your kids to have every opportunity that other kids have,” he said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.