Debbie Ogden considers swimming a lifesaving skill. That is exactly why she raised each one of her children in the pool. The Special Olympics USA head swimming coach has shared that same expertise with Special Olympics athletes for the past 16 years. Before assuming that role, she cheered on her son Robbie, who competed in Special Olympics from the second he was old enough to do so. Robbie was born in 1988 with a chromosomal abnormality, but that would not deter him from following his family’s footsteps, or flutter kicks, in the lanes. Due to his condition, he could not sweat, making swimming the perfect sport to pursue.
Robbie’s sister Ashley, three years his elder, was an inspiration in the water. He traveled to every one of his sister’s swim meets, patiently waiting at the edge of the pool to hug each swimmer emerging from their race. Soaking wet, he congratulated them all. Likewise, the Ogden family members loyally volunteered their time, talents, and words of encouragement to Special Olympics Kentucky swimmers.
“Special Olympics has impacted my life in many ways, first, by seeing the joy that is brought to my son as he participated,” said Ogden. “Then, when I started coaching after he passed in 2005, it was one of the hardest things that I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding. Robbie taught me the true meaning of life and love and living every moment of life the best you can during his short life,” she continued.
After his passing, Ogden’s family, friends, and fellow Special Olympics parents eventually convinced her to revisit the Special Olympics Kentucky swimming program, housed at Northern Kentucky University, as their head coach. In her first year, Ogden says she cried every day after practice, grieving Robbie’s absence in the pool.
Growing the program from 10 swimmers to 90 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ogden says, “Each of these athletes holds a very special place in my heart.” Complementing her role with Special Olympics, she is past president of Mothers of Special Children of Northern Kentucky and of the Northern Kentucky Swim League, and a certified USA Swimming official. She is employed as a senior executive assistant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Once Ogden learned of her nomination as head coach for Special Olympics USA in the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023, she got to work. The Special Olympics USA Team Trials were held Nov. 18-20 in San Antonio, Texas. Ogden spent the weekend witnessing friendships and swimming techniques alike flourish, learning how she can best motivate her athletes from dry land.
“I have to say my one word to describe the weekend was ‘amazing,’” said Ogden. “It really was, it was an amazing experience. I had met all my athletes via Zoom, and it was great to meet them in person, see their personalities, and gel as a team.”
In the coming months, Ogden will host monthly Zoom sessions, reviewing training regimens that she has curated for each athlete and shared with their local coaches. Serving as the head swim coach for Special Olympics Kentucky in the 2018 and 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, Ogden is experienced in the art of preparation for large-scale competitions.
Returning to the pool deck, year after year, Debbie Ogden continues to teach this lifesaving skill. It’s one that has saved her time and time again, feeling most grounded by the water. It has shaped her career, her family, and her perspective on what it means to live a full life, no matter how long it may be.