PALM HARBOR — On Saturday mornings from 11 a.m. until noon, 12 swimmers, ages 12 to 56, crowd into the pool at the Greater Palm Harbor YMCA. These 12 join more than 20,000 Floridians who are participants in the Special Olympics, the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
As the Palm Harbor team took to the pool one recent morning, all radiated enthusiasm and the competitive spirit of champions-in-the-making. Among them was John McDaniel, 43, a good-natured, burly man with a ready smile and a visible love of the water.
"I love swimming and I like all my coaches," he said in an uneven voice. "I like backstroke and freestyle the best."
John, who was born with cerebral palsy, has also suffered from seizures, diabetes, sleep apnea and partial paralysis of his right arm and leg. None of these, however, deter him from achieving success in multiple sports.
His is a story of the mutual love and determination of a young man and an adoptive mother who believed in him. It is a relationship that has given both of their lives new meaning.
John's mother, Nell McDaniel, 81, suffers from severe back pain. She sits in a wheelchair by the pool every Saturday morning. She sits beside the volleyball court Sundays and the bowling alley Monday nights. She is so proud of this son, she says with a smile.
She watched as John jumped into the water, using the breaststroke one way and returning with a backstroke. He radiated determination as he propelled himself along, favoring his left arm because the right one was weakened by cerebral palsy.
Terry Saussy, a Special Olympics coach for the last seven years, works with John on Saturday mornings.
"He is a great swimmer," she said. "From a coach's point of view, he is a hard worker, listens to instruction and always follows through."
Now an award-winning Special Olympics competitor with ribbons and trophies in multiple sports, John's future looked dim at birth.
He was born at the Duke University Medical Center in 1971, the child of unwed students at North Carolina State University. His birth mother, a Greek citizen, had been told by a doctor that the child would be a vegetable all his life. She left him at the Hilltop Home in Raleigh, N.C., a home for children with severe disabilities.
The sickly baby might have stayed there indefinitely, but Nell McDaniel, at the time a mother of three, stepped in.
A phone call from a neighbor brought Nell to her future son. The neighbor thought Nell "would be a good fit," Nell recalled her saying, to assist staff at the Hilltop Home with an unruly 3-year-old who clamored for constant attention..
"When I met him," Nell said of the little boy, "he wasn't toilet trained, couldn't speak and didn't know how to chew."
She began working patiently with him and bringing him home on weekends, where her husband, Dan, and their three children fully supported her. When John was 4, the couple adopted him. Challenges followed.
"Learning to love him was a slow process," said Nell. "John's extreme need for attention irritated me early on."
John's temperament slowly improved, but other problems surfaced. By age 8, he had developed seizures. Six years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
Ultimately, none of the physical ills affected Nell's feelings for her youngest child.
"I never thought I could love a child I hadn't given birth to," she said, "but I just love him."
With his mother's loving guidance, John has blossomed in many of life's arenas, beginning with sports. He has sailed and played golf over the years and today is an avid bowler, volleyball player and swimmer on Special Olympic teams. He has brought home many awards, including three from his first state swimming competition in 2009, where he won gold, silver and bronze medals.
John plans to participate in this year's Special Olympics district meet at the Dunedin Highlander pool Saturday. The next state swim meet will take place in the fall in Sebastian. He'd like to qualify for that.
"I want to win another medal," he said.
John's activities stretch beyond the pool. For the last 11 years, he has worked four days a week bagging groceries for a Palm Harbor Publix.
He has an active social life as well. His main vehicle for socializing, a group called M.A.S.H. (Mainstreamed Adults Sharing Hope), was founded by Ann Millan more than 17 years ago. Millan, whose autistic daughter, Robin, 42, also swims on the Special Olympics team in Palm Harbor, plans monthly activities along with other parents. For the last 10 years, M.A.S.H. also has staged plays yearly at different local venues.
"It has done wonders for my son," Nell said of the group, adding that he met a girlfriend through M.A.S.H. "They go dancing, to the movies and even out to dinner with someone's parents coming along."
Nell anticipates each day eagerly, sharing in John's activities.
"He keeps me busy and is such a joy," she said. "My life would be incomplete without him."