NEW PORT RICHEY — The sky is spitting an afternoon shower as Michael Tuason arrives for practice at the New Port Richey Rec Center pool with his mom. The tall, lanky teenager greets his waiting dad with a brief "hi," then quickly strips to his bathing suit and tucks his black, shoulder-length hair under his navy blue cap.
Before long, the star of the Pasco Piranhas Special Olympics swim team is in the water, ready to go.
"How many?" Michael, 18, asks his coach, Rita Miller.
She barely gets out, "Give me 20," before he's off, swimming the freestyle and easily lapping the two other swimmers sharing the lane.
"Just look at him go," Miller says, "He won't stop till he's done all 20 laps and then he'll ask me again, 'How many?'
"Now you see why he's going to the World Games."
The water has long held a special, unexplainable allure for Michael. It's where he's most wanted to be, ever since he was 7 and took his first swimming lesson. Back then it was all about survival. His parents, Mike and Pam Tuason, who both work as nurses in local hospitals, had recently moved with their son from Buffalo, N.Y., to Florida. They were having a home built in Holiday complete with a pool in the back yard and wanted to make sure Michael didn't end up like those other kids — the "accidental drownings" they kept reading about in the newspaper.
Michael, diagnosed with autism at age 4, took to the water like a fish.
It was kind of a miracle — an awakening.
The kid who used to while away time flushing the toilet just to watch the water spin or setting up chairs in a straight line had finally found another interest. The kid who used to bite and kick and scratch because he couldn't express himself verbally, who had been through countless therapy sessions to help him find his voice, was now pleading with his dad to take him to Clearwater Beach. There the two would spend hours in the water; father coaching son, teaching him the freestyle, the backstroke, the breaststroke and racing with him until son was soon leaving father in his wake.
"He never wants to leave," said Mike Tuason, 50, of their daily visits to the beach. "Sometimes we stay till 10, 10:30 at night just lying in the sand watching the stars."
Ask Michael what the draw is — what he likes about the water — and he'll tell you "the temperature."
But his mother, Pam, 54, has other ideas.
It is in the water where her son finds pockets of normalcy.
"I think he just feels comfortable there," she said. "He'd swim 24 hours a day if he could. It's the one thing that makes him feel proud of himself."
Michael, who attends J.W. Mitchell High School, is now an accomplished swimmer. He's been training with the Pasco Piranhas for just over a year and has done well, despite his disability. He's mastered the somersault turn, says his mom, and honed his diving skills.
He has excelled in competition, earning two gold medals for placing first in the 400 and 800 meter swim in the Florida Special Olympics games in October 2009 in Sebastian. Because of those wins, his name was put in a pool of athletes who would potentially represent the United States during the 2011 World Games June 25 through July 4 in Athens, Greece.
Two weeks ago, at a Special Olympics state leadership conference, Michael's name was pulled out of a hat. He's headed to Greece.
"I was very excited," said Val Lundin, who first got the news while attending the conference as Pasco County Special Olympics co-coordinator.
"He is so good. The kid swims 32 laps and gets out and he's not even out of breath, so I think he'll do well."
The luck of that draw is another miracle of sorts for the family who gave up so many dreams when Michael was first diagnosed. "They called to tell me and I had to call back the next day just to make sure it was real," Pam said. "It's really a dream come true."
"I couldn't grasp it," said Michael's dad. "For me, it's the best thing that's ever happened."
Michael, typically, is nonplussed.
Ask him what he most wants to see when he goes to Greece and he looks away and simply answers, "The ocean."
Michele Miller can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 869-6251.