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Coaching up the coach in swimming

Microsoft News 7/5/2018 Patrick Holloway, Special to MSN

© Michael Young MSN Causes and Microsoft, a proud sponsor of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, are bringing you special coverage of these games that have brought inclusion and empowerment to millions around the world with intellectual disabilities. As the Special Olympics celebrates its 50th anniversary, please consider making a gift today that will ensure athletes can be on the field, spreading joy and making memories.

Zada Anderson, 18, is wrapping up high school. She’s due to arrive at Purdue in the fall and plans on majoring in biomedical engineering, with a minor in computer science. At her high school in Vermont she plays varsity volleyball, tennis, ice hockey. Those are just the sports organized by her high school.

Next to her sits swimming teammate Christopher Mitchell. Mitchell, 31, taught himself how to swim competitively, with a few pointers from his mother. Outside of her assistance, Christopher had to work on his own to get onto Vermont’s Special Olympics swim team. He joined a pool, joined a gym, and sought out pick-up basketball games. Mitchell, in essence, with his mother’s help, was his own coach. His self-created program got him an invite to nationals.

Those two make up the Vermont’s Special Olympics swim team. The state has the smallest amount of delegates at the competition.

“These are two of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” Vermont swim team coach Chad Phalon said. “I’m lucky that they let me coach them.”

Phalon was Mitchell’s first official coach, and the latest of many for Anderson. Tasked with working with such different backgrounds, Phalon individualized his coaching for each.

© Michael Young “First it’s getting to know them,” Phalon said. “I’m not coaching ‘Swimmer X’ or ‘Swimmer Y.’ I’m coaching Chris Mitchell and Zada Anderson. I want to make sure my coaching is best for them, and I’ll adjust to their swimming and their learning techniques.” 

With only two participants in swimming from very different backgrounds and a coach willing to craft different training styles for each, Vermont didn’t need much else; Mitchell went first, swimming the men’s 100m freestyle in a respectable 1:26.56 and winning a silver medal.

“I would have been happy no matter where I got,” Mitchell said on the win. “Because I know I had been training extra hard this year. I know I wasn’t that much faster, but I had a lot more endurance.”

Mitchell’s finish came after he realized he was in fourth or fifth place after the first couple laps.

© Michael Young “It was that endurance he was working on all year,” Phalon said. “Endurance is key.”

“It felt good to finally be a part of the gang,” Mitchell said, referring to the awards ceremony and being one of the participants who stood in front of the audience to receive a medal. From his own recollection, he took only a few minutes of soaking up Tuesday’s victory before concerning himself with how Anderson would finish.

“That’s Chris,” Phalon said. “He always wants to know how his teammates are doing, he always wants to be there for them. Sometimes you just need go back and say ‘let’s work on Chris.’”

Anderson’s first competitive swimming event happened before high school, a swimming relay where she placed 12th. The finish made her grind even harder. Before the competition she couldn’t recall what her regimen was. After the finish, she trained five days a week, able to recite some of her regimen when prompted.

“I don’t quit when I lose things,” Anderson says with a laugh. “I just work even harder.”

Despite the hard work, Anderson does question her abilities. The immense grind can have its toll on anyone.

“She always needs a little reminder of how hard she is working,” Phalon says. “Sometimes we need to tell her how hard she is working, how hard she has been working and how hard she will work. She doubts herself sometimes.”

© Michael Young Anderson’s practice and preparation was never a concern for Phalon. In fact, the gears in her head would turn when they were far away from a swimming pool. The night before the competition, Anderson would quiz her coach on everything she needed to know. At practice, she never wanted to leave. She always wanted something more.

“Every single practice, she [Anderson] was looking to do more and more and more.” Phalon said. “It was like, ‘What else? What else?’”

Anderson finished third Tuesday, taking home the bronze. The times were extremely close, some down to just milliseconds, something Anderson used to comfort herself after the race.

 “I was checking the heat after me was pretty close in times. So I was happy with that.”

Phalon is all smiles as his two swimmers recall their competition Tuesday. He looks at them as his own teachers.  “I just signed up myself for a four-mile open swim. These two have taught me so much. Zada has me always looking at the little things—every little thing I may do, and Chris has taught me to stay positive and work with my team.”

Two Special Olympic swimmers from Vermont, the only swimmers for Vermont, walked out with some hardware, and while they were at it, they coached up their coach.

Read more stories from MSN's exclusive Special Olympics USA Games coverage: 

The Incredible Eric

Tennis rackets, independence, and chauffeurs 

The discipline and dedication of Justin DuBose

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