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The Inaugural Washington D.C. Sharkfest Swim Safely Dives into the Unknown

Special Olympics athletes and volunteers huddle together after athletes are awarded medals for their efforts.


A word often stressed in order to ensure the well-being of a given individual. A word often recognized as a goal for individuals to attain in their attempts to protect those they care for from hazardous situations.

On Sunday, numerous hours of safety training and precautions paid off for Special Olympics athletes in the inaugural Washington D.C. Sharkfest Swim benefiting Special Olympics.

Special Olympics and the event's sponsors, National Harbor and Potomac Riverkeeper Network, successfully performed many hours of water testing and filled the Potomac River at the National Harbor with lifeboats to guarantee the safety of athletes.

Kester Edwards standing on the dock, next to a Special Olympics Play Unified float.
Kester Edwards encourages athletes to push back against people who tell them they can’t do things because of their disability.

“That was a big part of my focus,” said Anne McLindon, coach and Special Olympics Open Water Technical Delegate. “In bringing a racer, I wanted to make sure we knew what the water quality was and what we were putting people in.”

McLindon joined Special Olympics in 2011 through Kester Edwards, Manager of Sport and Development and former Special Olympics athlete. Her job was to support him in the growth of the open water swimming program at Special Olympics which he began lobbying for in 2004. Seven years of advocating led to the first open water swimming competition in the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. Kester won an Honorary ESPY award in 2017 for his efforts.

Edwards believes that the only way athletes can quiet the anxieties of those worried about athletes participating in open water swimming is through training. He thinks that pools give swimmers and spectators a sense of control because athletes are more easily spotted there than when they are in the open water.

One athlete in particular, Rose Pleskow, has come face to face with other people’s fears for her. She has epilepsy and there are some who are worried about her having a seizure while swimming. Edwards said Pleskow embodies what it is needed for athletes to take the sport further.

“Everyone was afraid she would have a seizure but she refused to take “no” for an answer—to stop swimming.”

She began competing in open water swimming after a coach informed her of a clinic in the Cayman Islands after her 100m freestyle event.

“She asked do you want to go to a clinic and swim a 100m in the open water,” Pleskow said, recalling the moment. “I said ‘Are you kidding me?’ So, I trained for two weeks. I was anxious about open water but after I did an 800m, I realized that I loved the sport.”

For another athlete who has also put in the hours to compete in open water, Sharkfest meant facing the unknown of swimming in Washington D.C.

- “I never raced here before so there was a lot of mystery behind Sharkfest. And having been able to swim in a lot of great races, to have Sharkfest as my first race in D.C. was a lot of fun,” said Cara Cannila, a Special Olympics athlete.

Open water swimming is not as big of a competition in the Washington metropolitan area but Edwards said that the inaugural Sharkfest swim will encourage participation in open water swimming.

“The big World Games and the big events are not always the events that make the biggest difference. Mrs. Shriver always said ‘it is not about the big event, it’s about the small event because the small event can be just as impactful as the big one.’”
Kester Edwards

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