Michael Tuason was typically calm when he took his place at the edge of the pool in the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens, Greece.
His parents and his aunt, all donned in red, white and blue, were typically nervous as they watched from the stands with fellow flag-waving Americans.
With his long black hair tucked under his USA cap, Michael didn't pay much attention to the swimmers on either side of him preparing for the 400-meter freestyle. The water was beckoning. Michael, 19, was ready to comply.
The competitors at the Special Olympics World Summer Games dove in, and Michael found himself neck-and-neck with Japan's Yosuke Kobayashi and Panama's Guillen Ricardo.
The atmosphere was electric, said Michael's mother, Pam Tuason. "Everyone was yelling and cheering. It was so exciting watching him swim."
Michael pulled ahead at the end, touching the wall 2 seconds ahead of Kobayashi and 5 seconds ahead of Ricardo.
It would be one of two gold medals Michael would win at the World Games, held June 25 to July 4 in Athens. He took another gold for the 800-meter freestyle, and two bronze medals for the 1,500-meter freestyle and his 50-meter leg in a team relay.
"It was like winning the lottery," said Michael's dad, Mike Tuason. "A dream come true."
And something he thought would never happen after his son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4.
Teaching Michael how to swim was mostly about safety — especially since he was so fixated with the water.
No one knew how much comfort swimming would bring; that Michael, who couldn't form words, would try to talk when he was underwater; how he would swim from morning till night if his parents would let him, all the while increasing his speed and stamina.
Then came the Special Olympics, where Michael thrived while racing with members of the Pasco Piranhas.
"Socializing is his biggest problem, so we wanted him to be with other people," Pam Tuason said. "Swimming is like an individual sport, but you're with a team, too."
After earning two gold medals in the Florida Special Olympics, Michael was entered in a drawing and won a spot in the spring of 2010 on the U.S. Special Olympics team destined for Athens. To help him prepare, his parents signed him up for training six days a week with the Clearwater Aquatic Team.
"He was representing our country, so we wanted him to be the best he could be," said Pam Tuason.
Michael rose to occasion.
"He's a very hard worker," said aquatic director Randy Reese, 65, who has been coaching swimmers for 34 years, including 41 Olympic competitors who earned a total of 18 gold, 8 silver and 9 bronze medals at various summer games. "We just put him in a group that he had to work hard to keep up with and he kept improving."
Members of the community sponsored fundraisers to help pay his travel expenses to Greece — where aside from racing, Michael's utmost desire was simply to go to the beach.
The water there was "cold," Michael said. And "blue."
Michael graduated from Mitchell High and is now enrolled in a trade program for autistic students at Pinellas Technical Education Center. He still trains with the Clearwater Aquatics Team, and was back to racing on Monday evening at the 2011 Special Olympics County games held at the New Port Richey Recreation Center.
He's a celebrity now among parents, coaches and teammates such as Damian Gallo, 17, who is developmentally disabled.
"He's a true role model. The reason I know how to flip turn is because he taught me," Damian said. "Our teammates call him 'The Machine' because he moves so fast. He could swim for while and he never gets tired — not one bit."