Special coach

Marie White paces along the concrete edge of the Maui Family YMCA pool, eyes sweeping across splashing swimmers until they fix on a young man who’s stopped at the end of his lane and is hanging on the side of the pool.

“What are you swimming? Freestyle?” she calls across the water. “OK, swim back to me now, please.”

At the upcoming Special Olympics Hawaii State Summer Games, scheduled for this weekend at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, some of her athletes will be swimming relay or individual events. For a few, remembering which stroke they are supposed to be doing will be as much of an exercise as splashing their way across the pool.

For the past 11 years, White has been a volunteer coach for the Special Olympics Maui Dolphins swim team, sharing duties with fellow coaches Josh Rowe, Caleb Rowe and Cece Mishima.

White says that when she first started coaching Special Olympics athletes, she thought it might be a challenge. But, she says, she’s found that it’s no different from coaching anyone else.

“We all have our special needs,” she says. “You just learn their language and teach to their ability.”

White says one of the most rewarding things about volunteering with Special Olympics has been seeing the athletes progress. A decade ago, swimmers in the program only learned freestyle and backstroke. Since then, they’ve added breaststroke and butterfly, and now some swimmers compete in relays or the individual medley, which requires them to perform all four strokes in sequence.

Athletes are also now swimming longer distances – some who started swimming 25 yards are now swimming 50 or even 100.

“If they show you they can do it, you just push the bar a little higher,” she says. “It is challenging, but they’ve taken it on.”

White will get the chance to help two of her swimmers go for the gold on a national stage this summer, when she accompanies Hawaii athletes to the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games held June 14-21 in Princeton, N.J. Swimmers Niki Rojas and Fae Torres will represent Maui on the 12-person Hawaii team.

White says she’s excited to see her athletes compete in Princeton’s world-class pool, and to travel with the team to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks. But she says she’s most looking forward to seeing Special Olympics athletes from all over the country come together to compete and make new friends.

“I’ve been told it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience,” she says.

White was a basketball player in high school, but a physical education teacher saw her potential in the pool and encouraged her to get her lifeguard and water safety instructor certification. She started to teach swimming and was hooked.

“There’s something that happens with me and a student in the water,” she says. “It’s a special bond.”

While she teaches other sports, swimming creates an intimate, trust-based relationship between athlete and coach, she says.

“If we’re in the pool together, I’ll never forget their name,” she says.

While she coaches many different levels of swimming, White says she seems to gravitate toward working with people who need extra help, whether beginners, the elderly, or Special Olympics athletes.

“They’re so appreciative. It doesn’t feel like work, because they so enjoy being here,” she says of her Special Olympics team.

Since there is no age limit to participate in Special Olympics, some of her athletes have trained with her since she started with the program. She says she’s loved seeing them get healthier and grow in confidence.

One woman in her early 40s was scared of the water when she first began.

“She would hold my fingers so tight, it would stop my blood flow,” White recalls.

White helps such reluctant swimmers by starting them with easy, safe exercises, like bobbing, walking or running in the shallow end of the pool, or learning to submerge their face and blow bubbles.

This year the same woman swam 11 laps during the program’s recent “Swim and Fin” fundraiser.

“Once you’re in it, you’re in it for life; they’re great athletes to work with,” she says.

In addition to volunteering with Special Olympics, White, a Pukalani resident, is a learn-to-swim coach with the Hawaii Swim Club, is a water aerobics instructor for Kaunoa Senior Center, teaches an enhanced fitness class for the county Office on Aging, and works as a PE teacher for Pukalani Elementary School. She’s also active in her church, Faith Family Maui in Kahului.

White says she feels grateful to belong to such a supportive community.

“Maui is my ohana,” she says. “All the groups I work with embrace me. So I have a very big family.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at neighbors.maui@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.