NEW PORT RICHEY — Chip Smith was psyched.
He had just pulled himself out of the pool at the Special Olympics county swim meet and was looking pretty pleased with his performance in the 25-meter freestyle relay.
"Did you see that?" Smith, 36, asked his sister, Sheila Rust, 58, as he leaned over to accept a high five.
"I went fast."
Of course she saw that. In fact, Rust had been cheering and hollering, "Swim, Chipper Dipper, swim!" during the entire race Friday evening at the New Port Richey Recreation Center.
The responsibility of caring for Smith, who has Down syndrome, comes with its share of great and difficult moments for Rust. But seeing him swim on the Pasco Piranhas Swim Team and compete in the Special Olympics is definitely one of the highlights.
"As soon as I heard I could get him into the Special Olympics I signed him right up," Rust said. "I love it and it's so good for them. It's good for their morale, especially when everyone's clapping and cheering for them."
In the past, most of Pasco's Special Olympics competitors have been school-age children, said Val Lundin, who coordinates the county games with Judy Brunner.
But this year, the doors are opening wide for adult athletes like Smith, who hadn't competed in the Special Olympics since he was in high school in Lovejoy, Ga., and Karen Westfall, 23, who lives in a group home in Holiday and came away with two first- place ribbons after competing for the first time.
Parents a big help
That's due in great part to the efforts coach Fran Oey and two volunteer parents, Rita Miller and Jayneen Muetzel, who have stepped up to organize and recruit new team members.
"Last year we had two swimmers. Before that we had none. Now we have 17," Lundin said. "Now we're getting more and more adult athletes. I'm just overwhelmed. These two parents have brought the enthusiasm. To have parents come in and take over like this is extremely helpful."
Miller said she got into it because "I love to swim and it's the one sport that almost all of our kids can compete in."
Indeed, Miller's son Mark, 22, who is blind and has cerebral palsy, swims the 50-meter backstroke, 50-meter freestyle and the men's relay. Her daughter, Katelynn, 15, has severe learning disabilities and competes in the 50-meter freestyle, 50-meter backstroke and the women's 50- meter relay.
"We have kids who are in walkers, wheelchairs; kids who are autistic and Down syndrome," Miller said. "For some of these kids this is the first time they've been on an actual team.
"It opens up a whole new door for these kids," Miller said. "We're hoping next year we have a hundred kids."
That would be just fine with Muetzel, who jumped on board shortly after moving from Sedona, Ariz., to New Port Richey some two years ago.
Muetzel, who also coaches lyrical dance for Special Olympics, had been an active volunteer since her daughter, Jaymie, who has Down syndrome, qualified to participate at the age of 8.
Jaymie is now 17 and a student at River Ridge High. She promised to "kick fanny" Friday evening while up for her first race as Eye of the Tiger played over the PA system.
Many other teammates are around her age: There's Kris Starr, 17, a quiet, gentle kid who attends school at Ridgewood High. He hopped into Lane 3 in the lap pool and offered "good luck" wishes to the swimmer in the next lane before taking off for the individual 25-meter backstroke.
And Mitchell High's Damon Gallo, 15, who was adjusting his goggles while getting some last-minute advice from Lori Jaros, an adaptive physical education teacher at Seven Springs Middle who was timing the swimmer's pace.
"I'll make you proud, Coach," Damon said before swimming the individual 50-meter freestyle.
Add to that younger swimmers like Steven Bagnall, 9, and Trevor Stacy, 10, who attend Cotee River Elementary.
Getting a chance to swim and compete lifts everyone's spirits.
"It teaches them — and not just a particular sport," Muetzel said. "They learn about group activities, how to listen. To participate and work as a team. They have to come to practice and learn how to share a lane and watch out for each other. That can be a challenge."
"The biggest reward," Muetzel said, "is when the kids accomplish something that makes them feel good about themselves. That's our reward."
Michele Miller can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 869-6251.