By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Stanley Adams, a senior at Absegami High School, false-started in the first varsity swimming race he was ever a part of. Years from now, nobody will ever remember that. Because what happened next was the kind of moment that gets talked about at the 20th class reunion.
Stanley is diagnosed with having PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified). That’s the long way of saying he has autism. But, being challenged developmentally and socially has never stopped Stanley from being active. He plays golf, is the captain of his Special Olympics swim team, he’s played baseball, and even advanced to red belt in karate while training at Amerikick in Egg Harbor Township. About a year ago, his mom, Karyn, signed him up for some swimming lessons at the Brigantine Aquatic Center through a program called Faces4Autism, a support group based in Egg Harbor Townhip.
“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 (Absegami coach Jim (Winkler) gave him a chance,” said Brigantine Aquatics Center swim instructor Sari Carroll. “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.”
Karyn said Stanley became so frustrated with his lack of swimming skill that he wanted to quit after just a few weeks. She remembers telling him that life is tough and there are going to be challenges along the way, and no boy of hers was going to be known as a quitter.
“In the beginning, after about two weeks, he said he wanted to quit because it was too hard,” she said. “I said, ‘Stan, life is hard. Let’s give it another try and see if you like it.’ He did, and he’s been fine ever since.”
The Absegami swim team, which is a close-knit group, welcomed Stanley with open arms. Winkler had been trying to find a meet in which he could get Stanley into an actual race, and when the Braves traveled to Ocean City on Jan. 3, Red Raiders boys swimming coach Shane McGrath didn’t hesitate to agree to Stanley competing in the 50 freestyle. In swimming, the official generally tells swimmers to take their mark, then sounds the horn to start the race. Occasionally, the head official will blow a whistle to quiet the crowd. In this case he did just that, and Stanley leaped enthusiastically into the water. The swimmers and crowd got a good chuckle out of the false start, but about a minute later it was mostly tears, as Stanley swam his heart out to get from one side of the pool to the other and back again. He finished in last place among the swimmers entered in the race, but the crowd was on its feet the entire time, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house afterward. (A Glory Days video of the race was posted to the magazine’s YouTube channel. View it at YouTube.com by searching Glory Days Magazine.)
“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.”
Despite all the attention he was getting — everyone knew this was the day he’d make his varsity athletic debut — Stanley said he wasn’t the least bit nervous when he stepped up onto the starting block.
“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.”
“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. 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,” coach Winkler said. “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.
“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.”
Karyn said she had some trepidation about putting her son into a high school varsity setting.
“Faces4Autism has a water safety program for kids who have autism so they can be safe in the water. I learned about the program last year and signed him up. Coach Sari had the idea of putting him on the swim team at Absegami, so that’s how he got to be on the swim team. I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work because it was something completely new for Stanley, and I knew it would be challenging for him, not only physically, but socially also. But it’s really been awesome. The kids have really embraced him and he feels like he’s part of the team. It’s been a great response,” she said. “When the article ran (after the meet, at glorydaysonline.com) we had friends and family saying how proud they are of him, old teachers, even his golf coach saw the article, and everyone is really proud of him, as are we. People I know who have family members who have autism were really motivated by the story. I just think it’s awesome. So many people have seen the video on (Glory Days’) YouTube channel.”
Parents of star athletes are used to seeing their children succeed at sports, win trophies, get their pictures in the newspaper and be interviewed by sports reporters. Karyn Adams never imagined she and her husband, and the rest of the Adams’, would get to experience anything like that.
“It something that I can’t even express because it’s just so amazing, considering where Stanley came from. He’s had challenges throughout the years, and from where he has come from, to what he is now — how much progress he’s made is just amazing. For me, it was one of those proud mom moments to see him accomplish this. I thought it was pretty amazing how everyone rallied around him (during the race). It’s like time stopped, and that was his moment. No matter who you were, even if you were on the other team going against Absegami, at that particular time everybody was cheering him on,” Karen said. “It was an amazing moment, and an amazing experience — one that I will always cherish. He’s gotten so much attention. His friends are telling him he’s a celebrity. It’s been overwhelming. The response has been awesome.”
It had a similar effect on nearly everyone in attendance that day.
“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, 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.”
Karyn said giving Stanley that moment shows the character of the rest of the kids on the Absegami swim team, and she hopes more high school sports programs will follow the Braves’ lead.
“It’s definitely a life lesson. Just because somebody has a disability, it doesn’t mean they are limited. I always teach my boys that they can do anything they want, that they can do anything they put their mind to. I tell them life is full of challenges, and life isn’t always going to be easy, but if you put your mind to it and have faith, it will happen,” she said. “I think that’s really important. I think Stanley having such a great experience (with high school swimming); I hope more kids are allowed to participate in mainstream sports.”
Stanley likes watching the video of himself competing in a high school swim meet, but his mom said she doesn’t think he understands yet how much of an impact him swimming in that one race has made.
“I don’t think he realized how big it was. But he’s watched the video at least 10 or 11 times,” Karyn said. “I asked him what he thinks when he watches it, and he says, ‘I’m proud of myself.’ I said, ‘you should be proud of yourself, because we are proud of you.’ This is so good for his self esteem, to feel like he’s accomplished something.”
Stanley Adams has accomplished much more than he may ever know.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays