Broadening the Depths of Opportunity

On a brisk fall morning, Andrew Smilley steeled himself for his next athletic challenge.

Thousands of miles away from the warm water temperatures of his home in the Cayman Islands, Smilley was about to join 800 swimmers, including five fellow Special Olympic athletes, in one of the most challenging Open Water Swims in the world, the RCP Tiburon Mile. The legendary swim is one nautical mile in length from the San Francisco Bay's Angel Island to the shores of Downtown Tiburon. Smilley had plenty to think about. The intimidation of swimming with the world’s elite swimmers; the cold and choppy waters of the Bay that made up an unfamiliar course with infamous currents; and still in the back of his mind were the strange seal creatures he’d seen in the water during the previous day’s walk through.

But as all great athletes do when they face one of their greatest athletic challenges, Smilley calmed himself with the knowledge that he would meet his challenge because he and his coach Penny McDowall had spent countless, grueling hours training for him to reach his maximum potential and reach the other side of the unwelcoming Bay. With the proper mix of determination, preparation, athletic skill and training, Smilley dove headlong into the dark water.

Behind every great athlete is a great coach and the athletes of Special Olympics are no exception. So what makes a great coach? A straw poll of athletes and coaches might get you as many answers as there are people answering the question. What is clear is that great coaches in Special Olympics are especially invaluable to their athletes and Smilley is fortunate to have one of the best in McDowall. The pair has been working together as pupil and teacher for 12 of McDowall’s 15 years coaching athletes with Special Olympics Cayman Islands. Smilley signed up to start swimming at age 8 and it wasn’t long before he was distinguishing himself in the water. He was selected to represent Special Olympics Cayman Islands in 2003 where he earned silver medals in the lower divisions of the 50 meter backstroke and freestyle at the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games. Another four years later, Smilley built himself up to the 200 meter individual medley and the 400 meter freestyle where he won gold in both races in the top divisions at the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

McDowall has developed a successful three prong program of training and competition that she believes allows her athletes to achieve their maximum level of success.

Her first and second prong includes the regular skills coaching of athletes from a school for the disabled for ages 5-18, and athletes from a training center for adults ages 19–50. The third prong involves both of those groups integrating with local swim programs organized by the Cayman Islands Government’s Ministry of Sports, Cayman Amateur Swimming Association, and the Stingrays Swim Club.

The integration aspect is crucial in McDowall’s method due to the small population of the Cayman Islands. By integrating with non-disabled swimmers, her swimmers are regularly able to compete internationally throughout the Caribbean.

“Because the Cayman Islands have such a small population, international swim competition is built into the local swim program in order to raise performance levels,” says McDowall.

Additionally, she says that as members of the Stingray Swim Club her athletes benefit both competitively and socially as they are motivated by being part of that swim family.

On motivating athletes to achieve their personal best McDowall borrows advice from an Australian coaching colleague who said, "You have no control over the other athletes in the next lanes, but you do have control over your swim and your times." Using that logic, her colleague focused his whole team on knowing their times and striving for a personal best in at least one swim at every practice, and in every meet.

Says McDowall, “He concentrated on times but I took it with me and tried to incorporate it into our athletes practices, strokes, breathing, focus and times, or anything that could be targeted as a personal best every time they came to swim. And in swimming, as in life, there are good days and bad but if athletes can take one good thing away with them each practice then there is always something to strive to be better at the next time.” McDowall pairs athletes together with different technical levels so as to create an environment where athletes will mimic the technique of the higher level athlete. She then follows up with verbal instruction. McDowall also emphasizes the role of competition as opportunities to learn. “They learn so much by competing and getting disqualified, even as I concentrate on what we need to fix!” she says.

She also motivates her swimmers through participation in higher level travel events where they may not finish as high in the standings but get to compete against a higher level of swimmer. “The education and inclusion our athletes get on these trips is invaluable as a tool for motivation,” says McDowall. Special Olympics Cayman Islands enables to her to take her athletes on two such competition trips per year. The athletes are required to challenge themselves with personal best goals such as improved times or longer distance swims in order to participate in these trips.

By the time Smilley found solid ground on the opposite side of the Bay he was cold and tired, but also exhilarated and charged with a sense of pride and accomplishment. The hours of training, training more and then training more still, powered Smilley to finish the first open cold water swim of his life 107th out of the 800 swimmers. More impressively, he placed an outstanding 3rd overall in the 19-29 year old non-wetsuit division. So inspiring was Smilley’s swim that it was voted the Greatest Open Water Swim of 2009 in an online poll at, an honor at which Smilley said only, "They really voted for me? Wow, cool. What time is swim training tomorrow?"

No doubt Andrew will inspire and motivate many Special Olympics athletes and in 2011 the Special Olympics World Summer Games will offer an opportunity for Special Olympics swimmers to challenge themselves in the inaugural 1500m Open Water Swim Demonstration off the coast of Greece. Quota slots will be available to Special Olympics Programs as part of the “Extended Quota Program”. Interested swimmers must be able to swim 1500 meters in an hour or less. The Extended Quota program is intended to offer high level athletes a true competition experience that can’t be offered at a local competition due to lack of competitors of similar ability. Interest in participating in the Extended Quota program for 2011 must be communicated by Special Olympics Programs to their SOI Regional Sport Directors by April 1, 2010. In addition to the 1500m Open Water Swim demonstration several other sport events including the Marathon will be offered. For more information on the Extended Quota opportunities please contact your SOI Regional Sport Director.