Ellen Lynch Coaches Special Olympics Swim Team

Lynch with Sammy Ho, who won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, and the co-captain of the swim team, Walter Szczech.

Professor Ellen Lynch, Accessories Design, teaches FIT students the finer points of creating footwear—lasts, uppers, the anatomy of the foot. A bit of a sneakerhead herself, she can be spotted around campus sporting bright-red Chuck Taylors.

Friday nights, she goes to the pool at Mineola’s Chaminade High School on Long Island, and coaches an extraordinary swim team, the Shark Waves. These 18 athletes are Special Olympians. “Every one of them has intellectual disabilities,” Lynch says. “They excel in spite of their challenges.”

After a warm-up, the group does endurance exercises, then practices whichever strokes the athletes need to improve most. “The repetition is what’s most helpful,” she says. Lynch created the schedule and structure of the classes. Athletes also learn teamwork and socialization skills.

“I have only one female athlete, Shelby, who was afraid to swim,” Lynch says. “Her parents have a pool, but she had never gotten into it. I told her parents, ‘Tell her to lie across the bed so her arms and legs are off, and practice the strokes that way.’ The next week, Shelby got in the pool with the Shark Waves and started swimming. Her parents were in tears.”

Lynch was once an Olympic swimming hopeful, but at age 12, she was injured and missed tryouts. Ever since, she has worked as a swim coach or lifeguard. A few years ago, she was watching her nephew, who has fragile X syndrome, a condition that affects learning and cognitive development, play basketball with a Special Olympics team. She wondered why a swimming option wasn’t available. After Lynch became certified as a Special Olympics coach, she developed plans for the team with her co-captain, now a senior at Chaminade. About 20 student volunteers help out. Lynch also raised funds and developed a logo for team hats and bags.

The team’s first divisional tournament took place in Bethpage, Long Island. In every event they participated in, they won a gold medal, though winning isn’t the point. “This is the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” Lynch says.

This story will appear in a forthcoming issue of Hue, due in July. Check out video of the Shark Waves here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIqef7y_YtE