Whatever your age, or ability, swimming can be fun for everyone! Shared by her mum, this inspirational story of Esti, a young girl with autism taking part in her first swimming gala, shows exactly how inclusive swimming can be!
Recently Esti’s swimming club had their annual gala. She chose a whole range of events to race in and we helped her enter. The event took place over two weekends and in a different pool from the one Esti regularly swims in. Not only this but the noise and busy atmosphere made us very nervous about whether she would participate on the day(s).
All the spectators were on their feet, cheering, whistling and clapping
On the day of the gala I was allowed poolside with her. One of the stewards helped her with her entry because the swimmers have to prepare and enter the pool correctly or be disqualified, but with the whistles, lights and horns this can sometimes prove difficult. Esti tends to get distracted or stop swimming when she reaches the end of the pool; with the steward and one end and me at the other, we both encouraged her to keep swimming. When entering the water each time she was unsettled, uncoordinated and non-vocal (she often loses the ability to talk in unfamiliar situations), but this did not stop her she just kept swimming! Even though she was way behind the other swimmers in most, if not all her races, she always swam with a huge smile and successfully completed each race. As if her achievement of finishing the race wasn't enough to make us emotional, as I stood at the end of the pool, focusing only on her, it was an amazing surprise to find groups of other swimmers joining me to cheer her on! As Esti finished her final length in every race, all the spectators were on their feet, cheering, whistling and clapping.
Esti showing off her medal after the Swimming Gala
She was so tired after some of her races her legs gave way. But after one particular race an older girl came over and gave Esti her gold medal, saying "I have lots of these, it's you who deserves this". Esti was incredibly excited, while others were getting very emotional. I had to hold back my tears as it can sometimes scare her. All this wouldn't have been possible without the amazing swimmers, parents, stewards, and her wonderful coaches. They all showed amazing understanding and made some allowances for her, but what moved us the most was how everyone treated her like normal. Even though she was unable to communicate it was incredible to see the stewards taking time to speak to her, and the other swimmers including her in their conversations. The younger swimmers were great at asking 'why does she do...?' but without coming across as being mean or rude, and it was a pleasure to answer their curiosities.
Unconditional acceptance and pure friendship
The concept of unconditional acceptance and pure friendship meant the absolute world to us. Living our lives up to now, keeping our heads down with Esti being seen as a ‘problem’ to others or to ourselves, or just sticking out of the crowd with people staring and laughing at her. I could not sum it up much better than Esti herself who afterwards said: 'I was just Esti and everyone liked me'. As a family we often celebrate what would characteristically be seen as small everyday successes, but this makes the Galas and the Personal Achievement Award all that more special and emotional. It is just incredible to see the huge impact this has had, allowing her to be herself without putting on a front or necessarily giving learnt responses, and that seemed to give her an inner peace. It’s still a work in progress, but we feel very positive about this impact and how it's filtering into the rest of her life. For her to feel 'I'm Esti and that’s great' is what we have always wanted for her.
Swimming makes me happy
For Esti swimming is not about winning or competing, but as she sums it up ‘swimming makes me happy’. Every day we are incredibly proud of Esti (& our boys), she has taught us to look at the world sideways, upside-down, and backwards, and to appreciate everything and everyone for what/who they are!