Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Delaware man with Down syndrome to compete in Pier-2-Pier swim challenge

From The Star-News in Delaware:

On Sept. 12, Austin Hanson (pictured) will wade out into the waters of Wrightsville Beach and begin the swim between Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier and the Crystal Pier. He’ll be participating in the Pier-2-Pier Swim 2009.

Hanson, 36, has Down syndrome. He’ll be competing against non-disabled swimmers.

Down syndrome is a genetic condition that causes intellectual disabilities. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, one in every 733 live births is a child with Down syndrome.

Increasingly, people with Down syndrome and other disabilities are finding a place in the mainstream of society.

Hanson will find himself in the mainstream of swimmers making their way past the beach.

“I’m sure he’ll be right there in the thick of things,” said Dave Sokolofsky, race director and director of competitive swimming for the Wilmington Family YMCA’s Cape Fear Aquatic Club.

Hanson is training for the demanding 1.7-mile swim now, but he’s familiar with the route. He first swam it in 1997 and has done so a number of times since.

His father, Carl Hanson, said swimmers often have to veer farther out to sea in one area because sandbars form there and waves break over them.

Austin began swimming in Special Olympics events when he was 10.

He swam with the Waves of Wilmington team from 1986 to 2004. Waves is an affiliate of USA Swimming that supports competitive swimming at all ages and levels.

Carl said his son set records when he was 22 years old in 200-meter backstroke and 200-meter individual medley in competitions for the cognitively disabled.

Today, Austin swims with the Tri Club, a YMCA program for triathletes. They are coached in swimming, running and cycling. Austin participates only in the swim part of the program.

Carl said that in 1998, Austin trained in Colorado with the U.S. swim team.

“Swimming is good for me,” Austin said as we stood in the shade under the Crystal Pier eyeing Thursday’s rough surf.

Something is good for Austin. He’s a powerfully built man, with the shoulders and the biceps of someone who spends many hours a week in the water.

He surfs, and he lifts weights at the Wilmington Family YMCA.

Austin works at the Y cleaning up the poolside area and organizing the equipment. He’s worked there on and off since 1986.

The Pier-2-Pier race is a YMCA program. This is its fifth year, Sokolofsky said. The decision on which pier to start at will be made on the race morning, based on currents. The previous four races have started at Johnnie Mercers and run south to the Crystal Pier.

There should be around 500 swimmers 11 years old and up. They are divided into an 18-and-younger wave and a 19-and-older one, Sokolofsky said.

Alicia Uhl is a coach on the YMCA’s Tri Club. She’s confident of Austin’s ability.

“He gets into a rhythm and he can just go and go and go,” she said.

I asked Austin if his goal was just to finish the long race. His eyes lit up.

“I’m going to win,” he said.