By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — On Tuesday afternoon, the Ocean City boys swimming team dominated Absegami, winning 118-49 as Nate Hays won two individual events and was part of the winning 200 medley relay team, and Matt DiMarino added a win in the 50 freestyle and was a part of two winning relays. The Red Raiders won eight of the 11 events and had a bunch of second-place finishes. The Ocean City girls were just as good, topping the Braves, 125-44, on the strength of solid performances from swimmers such as Ryann Styer, Maggie Wallace, Claudia Scherbin, Courtney Sigmund and Emily Myers.
The Ocean City girls rebounded from an 86-84 loss to Egg Harbor Township prior to the Christmas break and improved to 3-1 overall, and the boys snapped a two-meet losing streak to improve to 2-3.
Despite all that, Absegami stole the show. Well, one swimmer in particular did.
Braves senior Stanley Adams has autism and had never gotten the chance to compete in a high school meet before. He only began swimming about a year ago, in a special program hosted by Brigantine Aquatic Center’s Sari Carroll, and when he first started, Carroll said he needed six flotation devices just to avoid sinking to the bottom of the pool.
But a year later, Stanley, 17, got the star treatment, even after he inadvertently false-started. He competed in the 50 freestyle event, and finished nearly 40 seconds behind DiMartino, who won the race in 26.47 seconds. But both benches cheered as loud as they could the entire time he was in the water, and as he emerged, he was mobbed by his Absegami teammates. Even Ocean City assistant coach Abby LaTorre said after the meet that she was brought to tears while watching the race unfold.
“We all almost started crying, and I’m pretty sure Sari did. He’s so hard working and never gives up. He always shows up to practice. Even when he false-started, he didn’t give up. He’s so sweet. This is the first time he’s gotten a chance to race in a meet. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it. He was so enthusiastic,” said Absegami senior Angela Zhang, who helps Stanley get on and off the bus when the Braves travel to away meets. “I’m so happy that he got the opportunity to do something like this. Not a lot of kids would do what he did and step up, and open a path for a lot of other kids. I really admire him. He’s really brave.”
“He’s been swimming with me for a year now. The first day he came in was really challenging, but working with him and his mom has been spectacular. We’ve been trying and trying, and Jim gave him a chance,” Carroll said. “We have an autistic program at Brigantine Aquatics and 16 kids have gone through it with us. He was in six floatation devices a year ago at this time, so it was really exciting to see him out there today. We weren’t sure if he was going to put his feet down or not. He can do his arms and his legs, but he’s really just starting to put it all together. But he’s exceeded my expectations.”
Carroll helped Stanley onto the blocks for the 50 free, and normally there is a command from the official to take your mark, then a horn sounds to start the race. Occasionally, the head official has to blow a whistle to quiet the crowd so the swimmers can hear the horn. The official blew his whistle, and Stanley thought that meant the race had started, so he leaped enthusiastically into the pool. Even that little mishap didn’t deter him, as he did the same thing when the horn blew for real the second time, and churned his arms and legs until he finished in a little more than a minute.
“I wasn’t nervous at all. When I got on the block, I wasn’t nervous. I just had to keep my head above the water. This makes me feel proud of myself,” he said. “I thought about this a lot at school. It was cool. It’s cool to swim for Absegami. I’ve been practicing. I practiced for this race for 100 minutes.”
“If you’ve never done it before, I’ve seen a lot of kids, they hear that whistle and they go. I probably should have said something to the officials beforehand, but the sportsmanship of Ocean City and all the officials was exceptional today,” said Absegami coach Jim Winkler.
Winkler said early in the season he planned to get Stanley into a varsity meet as soon as he felt he was ready, and Winkler said the Ocean City coaches were, of course, on board with the decision. It’s a teaching moment for all the athletes involved.
“We all love having Stan here. He’s proud of everybody, he cheers on everybody. And we’re really proud of him, he’s been working really hard and we appreciate having him here. He has the biggest smile on his face every day, no matter what, and he brings a smile to my whole team. It’s awesome having him here,” Winkler said. “They get to see — even the best kids, they are used to their clubs teams where it’s all very serious — but high school sports is about so much more. This is what it’s all about for me.”
Winkler said he nearly missed out on the impact of the moment, as he was trying feverishly to capture the race on video with his phone.
“It was really great. I told so many people about it. I was actually trying to video it for myself, and luckily at the end I looked around a little bit — I didn’t realize, because I was so focused on him — just how many people in this building were into it,” Winkler said. “There had to be 150 people standing and cheering for him, and I was so zoned in on him, I didn’t realize it until the race was over. It was really cool.”
What made the day even more special was that Stanley’s younger brother and his mother were on hand, as were some of his teachers, and former teachers.
“That’s what it’s all about. Kids with special needs are going to act like everybody else and follow what everyone else does. They don’t even realize what’s happening, but for his brother and mother to be here, and a lot of his teachers came, teachers from his past came to see him — so it’s a special moment for everybody who works with kids like him. It’s always a team effort when it comes to teaching kids with special needs,” Winkler said.
In the grand scheme of the season, Wednesday afternoon’s meet won’t mean much as far as records or playoff seedings, or power points, or anything like that. But to those involved, it’s a moment they won’t soon forget.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and today was such a special day. It’s really nice. I’ll tell you something, the Absegami kids have been so accepting of him. They’ve been amazing. They are a small group of kids, but they have gigantic hearts, and it was nice to see. It makes it all worth it,” Carroll said. “We work with Faces4Autism (a support group in Egg Harbor Township), and they have a water safety program. We’ve had 16 kids go through it, but Stan is special to me because he wasn’t safe in the water (when he started). I still can’t believe this happened. It’s been a great day. I’ve been doing this a long time and have done a lot of different things with swimming, and today was special.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullsays