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Published Jun. 29, 2010

It all started because Eva Kilissanly of Largo asked the city to host an adaptive swim team last summer so her son with Down syndrome could swim laps close to home.

"My main thing for him is endurance," Kilissanly said. "He has a heart problem, so this is the best exercise."

Little did she know her seemingly small request would result in such big dividends: a swim team that would double in size in just a year, be coached by her daughter and be funded by a nearly $10,000 donation from the Rotary Club of Largo.

"They are the most wonderful individuals," said Veniece Kilissanly, 27, the coach who leads the team's twice-a-week practice sessions. "This is what keeps me sane. They bring a smile to the end of the day that I desperately need."

John Paul Kilissanly, 24, Eva's son and Veniece's brother, liked swimming so much last summer that Eva asked if he could swim year-round at Southwest Pool. And now the summer program, which started June 14, has 13 members, more than double the number from last year.

Aquatics manager Mark Abdo asked the Rotary Club to sponsor the classes for three years so the parents wouldn't have to pay the $35 to $40 cost per athlete. "I didn't want to burden the families with fees," said Abdo, who also has received a $500 donation from Walmart the last two years.

It all adds up to lots of activity at Southwest Pool on Monday and Wednesday nights when the team practices. Some of the members are getting ready for Special Olympics events, which culminate with the State Aquatic Games on Oct. 2-3.

On a recent Wednesday night, several swimmers were making it across the pool. Three didn't need any help. Another just needed recognition to motivate her to leave the edge.

Someone shouted, "Look at Lynn!"

Lynn Kilgore, 43, put her head underwater, kicked her legs and ended up in a back float.

"I've never seen her so determined," said Karen Hetrick, owner of the Tower View group home, where Lynn lives in Seminole.

Dean Thompson's daughter, Dawn, 35, is on the team, too, and hopes to do well in the Special Olympics.

"She's going out for the 25 meter, both back and freestyle," said Thompson, 58, of Clearwater.

Stephanie Krokoski, 23, of Largo won a gold medal in freestyle in the Special Olympics state competition last year. Her mother, Pam, said she was pleased and surprised.

"When she won, she stood up with her arms in the air. I said, 'Just look at the confidence! She has come a long way.' "

Parents and caregivers say Veniece Kilissanly has a special touch. "She has a brother with Down syndrome. She's comfortable. She's real good," said Tina Ciecierski of Treasure Island.

Ciecierski's 17-year-old son, Stephen, has Down syndrome, too.

"He's nonverbal. He understands but has trouble communicating," Ciecierski said.

Stephen's love of swimming is apparent as he approaches the lap lane.

"Maybe sit down first, Stephen," his companion, Tocana Moore, 26, of St. Petersburg instructs him.

Stephen jumps in instead. After getting in the pool next to him, Tocana tries again. "Kick! Look. Like this!"

She demonstrates. Stephen goes under, curling his body into a ball and slowly sinking. "He's gonna do headstands," Ciecierski says.

When he surfaces, Tocana moves his feet to the surface. "Kick!" Stephen smiles from ear to ear. Later, when Stephen reaches the other side of the pool with Tocana, his mother gives him a high-five.

Denise Hussey, 55, of Largo said the team practice is just what her daughter needs.

"After brain surgery (for epilepsy) one year ago, she lost the ability to swim," Hussey said.

But Destiny, 15, didn't lose the desire.

"It's nice and cool from the hot weather," Destiny said.

"I was so happy Largo had enough (swimmers) to do this," Denise said, explaining that the team members are also inspired by one another. "If Stephanie can swim that well, I know my daughter can learn."

Eva Kilissanly knows how well peer pressure works for John Paul.

"He focuses more on swimming. They make good friends and care for each other," she said.

As the practice wrapped up, new volunteer assistant coach Brennan Aldrich, 24, of Seminole stood at the edge of the pool, encouraging swimmers to get to the other side.

Veniece Kilissanly jotted down her phone number and thanked her for coming. Another pair of eyes to keep swimmers safe. Another set of arms to coax swimmers across the pool.

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Interested in getting involved with Largo's adaptive swim team?

To participate: You must be at least 8 years old and have a physical or mental disability. Swimmers also must buy a Largo Rec card.

To volunteer: Call Mark Abdo at (727) 518-3126.